Most older people in London live in mainstream housing. In this regard London is similar to the rest of England. Across the country, 90 per cent of people aged over 65 live in ordinary homes, while only six per cent of people aged over 65 live in specialist retirement housing, and five per cent live in residential care. 21
Older people living in London are therefore just as exposed to London’s housing crisis as other age groups. Any increase in overall housing affordability in the capital will also improve the accessibility of housing for older people living in London, and provide more opportunities for Londoners who want to move later in life. Rental reforms to give greater security of tenure would also benefit London’s increasing population of older renters, ensuring fewer become homeless at the end of a tenancy. Such reforms would inevitably also benefit families and young people living in the capital.
For the 90 per cent of older Londoners who live in ordinary homes, there are things than can be done to improve life quality and promote healthy ageing in place. Housing development can meet the needs of current and future generations by providing age-friendly housing options within the mainstream market. Ultimately, well-designed homes and neighbourhoods – those that are energy efficient, safe, easy to get around and close to shops and transport – will help make ageing in place an attractive option for Londoners who want to live in the same local area their whole life. 22
Making homes adaptable as people age
Home adaptations can enable older people with health problems and disabilities to age well and live independently. According to the latest available figures, 52 per cent of Londoners over the age of 65 have a disability, compared to just nine per cent of those under 65. 23 Some homes are easier to adapt than others, and people may struggle both to find funds for an adaptation and to access reliable information on how to carry it out. Specialist older people’s housing, such as that delivered in retirement communities, is often built to be highly adaptable so that it can meet people’s needs as their health changes.
Designing new build homes to be more adaptable and flexible makes it easier for people to stay in them as they age. Examples include a step-free entrance to the house, a bathroom that is level with the entrance, and plug sockets at waist height. Many of these features are also useful to other types of resident, whether or not they have disabilities. For example, step-free access and wide hallways make life much easier for parents with pushchairs – and for cyclists who keep bikes in their outdoor space.
Adaptability was previously described in the Lifetime Homes Standards. For London, these have now been integrated into accessible housing policy within the “Intend to Publish” version of the London Plan. 24 Accessible housing policy requires that 90 per cent of all new build housing in London meets accessible and adaptable buildings standards, with the remaining 10 per cent required to go further by being wheelchair accessible. 24
London boroughs contribute to the cost of essential home adaptations for their residents across all tenure types through Disabled Facilities Grants (DFG). The amounts people receive are dependent upon savings and income, rather than house value. 26 Government funding of DFGs doubled between 2014-15 and 2019-20 – reaching £500m – as they became part of the pooled health and social care budget, known as the Better Care Fund. 27 Though local adaptation services are becoming more user focused, older people who try to access them often find that there is a lack of independent information and advice about suitable adaptations. 26
Intergenerational (or multigenerational) living has been increasing in London and across the UK. In London, 25 per cent of people aged over 70 are living in multigenerational households – far higher than the UK average of 15 per cent. 29 Older people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities are more likely than White people to be living with younger generations.
Policymakers and housing developers alike are increasingly interested in delivering intergenerational housing – for example, homes with living space for two households and shared indoor areas and outside spaces. These homes will be a useful innovation for many families, allowing grandparents to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives and potentially to support their care. Separate living space means that older people can retain their independence, while family members remain close by to provide care and support. In some cases, this may reduce the need for professional care. However, policymakers should not try to use intergenerational housing as a way to make family members provide complex or full-time care when professional support would be appropriate. This can place an impossible burden on families – especially female “sandwich carers”, who simultaneously provide care for older and younger relatives.
It is too early to say what impact coronavirus may have on the propensity to explore this type of living. More research is needed to understand the impact of intergenerational housing on family relationships, care needs, and older people’s health.
Co-housing refers to a group of people who are not relatives yet live together under one roof – usually in individual rooms or small flatlets but with shared living facilities. In the UK, the model is usually based on owner-occupation, with a mortgage held in common if necessary, but it can also exist through other tenure types. There are over 20 built co-housing communities in the UK, including one Older Women’s Cohousing Project in Barnet for women aged over 50. 30
This model is still in its infancy in the UK, but in northern European countries such as Denmark co-housing communities (“bofællesskaber”) have increased in popularity since the 1960s. In Denmark, co-housing communities account for approximately 20 per cent of homes, or 541,000 units. 31 Approximately 250 senior co-housing communities have been established in the country since 1987.
Co-housing can be a good option to alleviate loneliness, share some housing costs, and to manage some care needs. Setting up co-housing arrangements is complex and slow, requiring a great deal of negotiation over the use of shared spaces, how people will help each other, and what will happen when care needs increase over time. Without significant legal and regulatory change, co-housing is likely to remain a minority option in London – but one with potential for growth.