How can housing associations help an ageing urban population?

  • The UK’s ageing population is becoming increasingly urbanised
  • This needs to be factored in by social housing providers when future-proofing their services
  • We look at what housing associations can do to be more age-friendly

The idea of over 60s retiring to the countryside, or spending their twilight years in the sun, has been popular for decades. But in recent years there has been an increasing trend for ‘elderly urbanisation’, driven to a large extent by affordability.

The Local Public Services 2040 report – published by the Social Market Foundation and supported by Zurich – shows that more older people are choosing to stay in urban areas to have better access to services and facilities, such as care and transport, and to be closer to family members.

Many others are remaining in towns and cities for longer because of rising retirement ages and inadequate pension provisions that see them working into their 70s and beyond.

In fact, the Office for National Statistics suggests that, between 2012 and 2062, urban areas will see a substantial increase in the proportion of older people, and shrinkage of younger age groups.

Where should housing for elderly people be built?

This means that housing associations urgently need to plan for increased social housing needs in urban areas, as well as rural locations.

Savills estate agents estimates that the UK will need to build 78,000 adapted new homes for older people each year over the next decade, with another 71,000 care home spaces needed in the next eight years for those unable to care for themselves.

Alongside new developments, some local authorities and housing associations are looking at other methods to increase social housing, such as redeveloping old social housing to increase its capacity, installing new technology, and renovating unused buildings in urban communities, such as hospitals and schools.

When converting stock, such as flats and towers, the focus should be on housing that is built to last, with little need for repair. Location is another important factor. Housing associations need to build or buy in the right places – for example, near to healthcare facilities, shops and green spaces within urban communities. In addition, it is important that any units converted from a non-residential use meet building regulations for housing.

A changing approach to design

An increasingly elderly population also impacts on future housing design. Poorly designed homes create hazards that cost the NHS an estimated £2.5 billion per year. This can be more of a problem in cities, where, due to space constraints, most social housing is likely to be either converted flats or towers.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers argues in its Healthy Homes: Accommodating an Ageing Population report, that over the long-term, a home that enables people to age well will reduce the cost of residential and hospital care, saving taxpayers’ money. For example, it says careful design, alongside the use of smart technologies, could reduce the number of falls, which cost the NHS an estimated £2.3bn annually.

All urban social homes need to be accessible for the elderly, including ramps, lifts and handrails. It’s also important that urban social housing is designed with longevity in mind – this could include wet room facilities and bedrooms located on ground floors – in order to give elderly people the option of staying within their home even as they become more frail.

Using technology to benefit elderly people

Technology can enable housing associations to cut costs and improve living standards. Older generations are more internet and social media literate than ever, and the Internet of Things (IoT) and social media present huge opportunities for social housing providers.

‘Smart homes’ can help landlords monitor entire buildings, anticipate where repairs are necessary and respond to issues faster. By using devices such as smart carbon monoxide detectors and smart boilers, homes can be made safer for elderly residents. Housing associations also have the opportunity to move further into the care and enabling recovery market, for example by providing emergency alarm services for the elderly.

Judicious use of social media and the internet can help housing associations share tips, messages and reminders with tech-savvy residents, warning them of weather-related issues or informing them of social activities and helping them stay more connected.

Encouraging residents to engage with one another on social media can also provide a sense of community, helping to tackle the growing issue of loneliness among the elderly.

Working together for age-friendly support

An ageing urban population can put a strain on local services – particularly medical. But research has shown that providing more housing with care can actually have a significant positive impact in reducing GP visits by 50% and overall NHS spend by 40%. Joined up planning between housing associations, social and healthcare providers may be the way forward, with the added possibility of connecting with voluntary and community services.

Housing associations should work closely with their health and local government partners to design homes and services, as local authorities will have housing market research for their area.

Health and local government partners are also commissioners of extra care and other services to enable independent living, and housing associations could offer a wider service to older people. They could also explore town- and city-centre regeneration opportunities to provide multi-use hubs for public services, with the associations providing the extra care housing above health centres.

Housing associations are well-placed to offer a range of housing solutions for an ageing population, with private rented or sale solutions subsidising affordable and social housing, while creating mixed communities.

The increasing elderly population is a challenge for social housing providers. But it could also bring opportunities for housing associations to adopt new technology and invite new ways of working, helping future-proof social housing for generations to come.

Zurich Municipal would like to thank Solace for providing valuable insight for this report.