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Opinion: Who are you calling old?

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Opinion: Who are you calling old?

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing

Paul Diggory Paul Diggory

By Paul Diggory, chief executive, North Wales Housing

Here I sit, alone and 60, bald and fat and full of sin;

Cold the seat and loud the cistern, as I read the Harpic tin

Alan Bennett’s description of getting old is not one I aspire to, but soon one in three people in developed countries will be over 60. Where will they live? Not in hospitals, they’re already full of pensioners. 80% of emergency admissions who stay over two weeks are patients aged over 65.

We provide housing for 'older' people from 55, but we’re living longer than ever and our needs change over time. Extra care has proved a popular and effective response to those who need an element of care to remain independent. But now there’s no more grant in Wales, can we afford to provide more?

How can we help people stay in their own home as they age? What potential is there for co-housing communities with greater involvement? What about inter-generational models with mixed tenure? Shaping a brighter future for our older people is a significant challenge, one that must surely be based around helping people to age-in-place.

As our population gradually ages, we have to prepare for the consequences. If ‘old’ starts at 55, then many people are going to be considered ‘old’ for a long time. Individual needs will change and so there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Perceptions of age need to alter radically if we’re to successfully deliver real housing options for people.

Age is not a condition or a destination. It’s merely a continuum along which we move. Are existing models of provision paternalistic and outdated? There’s a strong argument for re-thinking what we provide. Older people sometimes feel they have things done to them rather than being involved as active participants in the process. Even the terms we use could be challenged: do names like ‘sheltered housing’ and ‘extra care housing’ put off prospective customers?

In exploring current models, successful schemes often require a catalyst - someone to make things happen – an energetic manager to organise events, or an enthusiastic resident to encourage others. A core of active tenants helps. Even successful schemes need to be reviewed occasionally and the offer refreshed. The way we present our accommodation is vital to a successful resident community – the way we furnish and decorate places says how we value our residents.

Community engagement can be easier given we have a captive audience, provided we approach people the right way. But not everyone wants to get involved. There’s got to be real potential for using our facilities as ‘community hubs’ for healthcare services and as local centres for support and friendship. Whatever options we offer, they have to be sustainable. Interestingly the role of the warden, seemingly under threat for years, survives. Why? Perhaps it helps to prevent isolation and loneliness, which are known to contribute significantly to poor health in later life.

Recent years have seen ideas based on co-operative housing and inter-generational housing. They may have merit but must be planned effectively with co-operative housing requiring a lot of ground work and organisation. The ‘Fizzy Living’ concept developed by Thames Valley Housing - privately rented apartments based on an American concept with concierge and other lifestyle services – could have potential for older people with disposable income.

At our 2013 NWH ‘Young At Heart’ conference for older residents the idea of playgrounds designed for and restricted to older people received unanimous support! A great way to help people have fun and keep fit, preventing health problems. Whatever the future holds, we have to see more flexibility in provision. When we place such value on community and companionship in our advancing years where is the sense in moving people out of a settled home when their health needs change?  Ageing-in-place should be the principle that underpins our future housing for older people in Wales.

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