How can we maximise the “wellbeing potential” of retirement living?

Tony Watts OBE recently gave a presentation at LaingBuisson’s Social Care Summit on why later life housing developers need to “futureproof” their schemes by “maximising their wellbeing potential”. Here is an adapted version of that presentation.

A common theme in any discussion on retirement housing in the UK is why retirement developments here have not achieved the sort of market penetration that seniors housing has managed in countries like Australia, New Zealand and the US.

It’s a complicated issue and there’s no single answer. Later this month I’m chairing a discussion at the Silver Marketing Conference in London on the role that marketing can play; and, in other articles on this site I’ve gone into chapter and verse on how they need to introduce enhanced choice, more co-design with local communities and greater transparency to help win over older people.

My recent presentation to social care and health leaders, as well as retirement housing providers, allowed me to explore another important thread: maximising the “wellbeing potential” of retirement housing.

Why does this matter? A key reason many older people will elect to move into a purpose-designed later life development is to feel that their domiciliary and care needs could be better met there – enabling them to remain living independently in their own home for longer, rather than waiting for the choice to be taken out of their hands and making what many will feel is the “ultimate” move into a care setting.

And to different levels, depending upon the provider, this is true. Some schemes will have on-site facilities (gyms, pools, exercise classes and so on) that residents can tap into. Others will be designed specifically to be provide “extra-care”. But there are plenty of developments (particularly ones which have been around a while) which really are not much more than a fairly standard housing product that happens to house people on the basis of their age…

But there are ways in which developers and operators – especially those that currently offer little in the way of “wellbeing” – can increase market penetration and improve the lives and wellbeing of the growing number of people in later life… and play an important role in easing the burden on our struggling health and care services. And no, they don’t all need to cost the Earth, and many can be introduced to existing housing.

Accentuate the positive…

But let’s start by getting more developments out of the ground. A common objection raised at planning applications for new retirement developments is the “additional burden” they will place on local primary health services.

Developers, despite their best efforts, have still to win the argument that they can actually assist our overburdened health and care services – enabling more supported and healthier lives, and ensuring that older people’s needs can also be more efficiently met.

How can they move the dial? By adopting the best current practices of some of our more enlightened developers… but also looking to the future.

Adopting approaches that encourage social connectivity and reduce individuals’ need for formal support.

Here are five ideas for starters.

1          Firstly, implement – as far as they can and as soon as its contents are officially released – the recommendations of the Older People’s Housing Taskforce. There are excellent proposals in there which simply can’t wait until the next Government finds time.

2          Consider intergenerational housing

I was in Alicante recently looking at a project has brought together older people needing affordable housing with younger graduates – requiring exactly the same.

This is an incredibly vibrant, mutually supportive community. Younger people, for a reduced rent, help keep older residents living independently. During lockdown, not one older person caught Covid. Could it happen here? A small group of people I’m working with in Bristol are looking to replicate their success.

3          Design spaces for social connection

I’m not just taking about a common room with a TV parked in one corner, or even a nice garden. The Alicante project, for example, has wide corridors, open spaces between floors, activity rooms on every level, a roof garden, where people serendipitously meet, chat, connect… watching out for each other and combating isolation.

Many new developments – to me at least – seem big and blocky with few natural spaces to gather… which is not conducive to socialising.

4          Integrate later life living within mainstream housing

With the best will in the world, not everyone wants to live in a dedicated retirement development. I have also yet to see any mainstream housing developer set out to replicate what we currently have in any thriving community: a mix of ages where people support each other.

I’m convinced that there is scope to pepper-pot units of older people’s housing into new mainstream developments.

5          Harness technology

There are plenty of whizzy ways available in which older people’s health and wellbeing can now be monitored ­– but in reality, we really haven’t scratched the surface in terms of implementing them.

I’ve recently been looking at the latest University research on how we monitor temperature, humidity, movement, even light levels to ensure resident wellbeing.

Another project has an inconspicuous ear bud to monitor vital signs such as residents’ temperature, heart activity, blood oxygen levels and so on. AAA member Siloton has developed a compact device to menitor patients’ AMD in their own home.

In these ways and any more, we need to future proof older people’s homes so that the technology can be integrated – and updated – as it evolves.

I’d like to see developers collaborating with some of the researchers working at the sharp end of these technologies: the researchers need funding and a chance to get these new ideas out there in the real world, and retirement housing developers need to show that life in one of their schemes can really promote wellbeing.

A time will come when robots can play a role. AI is already here: I’m part of a small collaborative group behind the “Familia” project which you’ll find described in another article – just one way to keep older people connected and safe in their own homes for longer, and take some of the burden off our overstretched services.

And finally… even better than a pet robot, make room for real pets to improve resident wellbeing! It’s old fashioned and decidely non-technological… but it works!

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