Loneliness is one of the biggest issues facing UK society – and with older people particularly vulnerable, there’s a growing public and private sector focus on building supportive communities.
In the UK there are 3.6 million older people who live alone, and the Government estimates over 200,000 elderly people can go for a month without speaking to another human being. This isolation is thought to be as bad for a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Offering the over-55s the opportunity for a more social – and equally a more active lifestyle will be crucial going forward to keep an aging population happier and healthier for longer, says Philip Schmid, JLL’s UK director of healthcare investment.
“It’s about making sure that what is developed matches what people want and is flexible enough to meet their living needs and care needs as they age,” he adds. “For many people the choice at present is generally staying at home or moving into a care home. But they are looking for something different – they want to live in communities that offer them the chance to maintain their independence and the opportunity to interact with surrounding villages and towns.”
Tackling loneliness head on
The UK government recently announced a £20 million fund to support community schemes that help to bring isolated people together by making more use of local spaces, improving transport and investing in technology.
Yet there’s much more that needs to be done, with one in 12 of the UK’s population set to be aged over 80 by 2039.
Retirement villages are one solution. These have become more popular in other countries; for example around 5 percent of New Zealand’s older population call them home. Yet In the UK that figure is less than 1 percent. Schmid says: “There’s is a real gap in the middle market at present and there’s a real need to develop a viable proposition for this market.”
He says schemes like the Chocolate Quarter, at the former home of Fry’s Chocolate in Bristol and Audley Retirement’s Mayfield Village, in Watford, offer on-site amenities such as gyms or cafes and social events but also have good transport and community links to ensure people can lead independent lives. There’s also on-site care options if people need assistance.
“Location is definitely a driver behind these developments. Many older people don’t want to be in secluded locations; they want to be in vibrant places whether it’s a city center or a well-connected village,” says Schmid.
Another important factor is space. “People who are selling the family home are used to space, they want fewer bedrooms but they still want apartments and properties with spacious rooms,” Schmid adds.
New models for retirement living
At present, the overwhelming trend is towards buying these properties, but there are concerns about how easy they are to sell on because of issues such as age restrictions on buyers. As such, Schmid predicts the rental sector will grow.
More new developments are also paying more attention to their environmental credentials, whether it’s looking at providing electric car charging points or car sharing schemes in response to resident demand. Others, such as Longbridge Village, in Birmingham are being incorporated within wider community regeneration schemes rather than standalone developments.
Going forwards, technology is likely to be an increasingly important consideration. Driverless cars, for example, could help combat isolation and address a public transport shortage, as could the growth of online banking and apps which could monitor health issues.
“Technology will increasingly be an important consideration, particularly as we see generations that have grown-up with smartphones getting older,” Schmid adds.
The rise of smart tech such as controlling household appliances from mobile phones or using voice activated devices to order shopping have significant potential for aiding independent living. Meanwhile, technology could also help to streamline administrative processes within retirement homes – freeing staff to spend more time with residents.
While retirement villages can’t fix the UK’s loneliness epidemic, they can promote human interaction and build links with the local communities to encourage integration and improve the wellbeing of their older residents.