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Connecting generations through houses & places

Earlier this week I came home to find on my doormat a “special invitation” from Audley Villages to visit a newly developed “luxury retirement village” where, it told me, I could “own my retirement”.

After filing the invitation in my blue recycling bin, I continued to wonder about these “communities” springing up across London. Having some experience with older relatives in what are known as “assisted living” communities in the USA, I was curious to learn how the UK model followed or diverged from the American approach to retirement living.

And so I visited the Audley website, and learned that an Audley retirement village is “a purpose-built beautiful and secure collection of houses, cottages and apartments, which are available to buy if you are over 55. At the heart of an Audley retirement village there is a centrepiece building, which houses the facilities of the Audley Club, of which you are automatically a member. The building may be a restored Tudor hall, a rebuilt Georgian manor or a refurbished Victorian villa with facilities including a restaurant, bar bistro, lounge, a health and wellbeing centre, treatment rooms and a swimming pool. You can even bring your pet”

I guess as I’m in an, ummmm, certain demographic, I’m considered a prime target for retiring to an Audley community. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather not do, and I really don’t think that intentionally segmenting off bits of London’s population by age, income and class will contribute net benefit to those individuals or indeed the wider community.

In the US, the trend driving purpose-built retirement communities is abating. According to the National Association of Realtors, baby boomers now make up 39% of all home buyers — the most of any generation. Its chief economist describes a shift in how they want to live:

"Coming out of the pandemic, people have reconsidered how they want to live - they are living healthier and longer. They want convenience, entertainment and walkability. They are buying condos in the city or inner suburbs — not retirement communities. That's a change dynamic."

A desire for intergenerational communities plays a big part in this shift. As one baby boomer put it, “I need to find ways to expand my orbit, not shrink it”.

Indeed, as I recently observed in the Netflix series on Blue Zones, intergenerational living is not only good for us, it promotes healthy longevity. Last week the UK Office of National Statistics reported on centenarians in the UK, showing that the majority of people aged 100+ live in coastal towns. 3/5 of them are living independently, within their local communities.

So why are we segregating people by age in our housing and planning? It only reinforces a crisis in housing manifested by unaffordability and generational polarisation.

We need to develop neighbourhoods and communities that embed the needs and aspirations of all generations. At present, the growth of our ageing population is resulting in many older people living in homes that are too large and difficult to manage, which is in turn exacerbating the shortage of housing options for others.

The issue was raised in Parliament last year. Cherilyn Mackrory MP told the Commons that “The Government must increase the proportion of housing stock for people of retirement age and encourage those over 65 in properties with surplus bedrooms to downsize, those who wish to that is. That will allow younger families to up-size to reduce the pressure to build more houses, and therefore easing the housing the crisis and improving health and wellbeing for older residents.”

According to Irene Craik of planners & designers Levitt Bernstein, the potential of intergenerational housing is only just beginning to be explored in the UK. She believes the pandemic was instrumental in sparking change:

"COVID-19 shone a brutal light on the design and management of much of our older persons’ housing. Outside of the horrors of some care homes, many people became isolated and lonely and were confined to homes unsuitable for their needs. Some coped, but many couldn’t …… it is now very apparent that we need to provide homes that enable residents to safely interact and socialise with others and offer adaptable space that responds to their changing” requirements over time”.

She points to recently developed Melfield Gardens in Lewisham where Phoenix Community Housing is trialling an approach to intergenerational living with elderly residents and university students.

“The arrangement means students will spend time with older residents to help combat loneliness, whether through being at hand to help around the home or socialising in the communal garden room. In return, the students get a rental discount and more besides ….isolation isn’t the preserve of the older generation of course – it can affect anyone, at any point in their lives. The chance to interact with older (and perhaps wiser) neighbours will serve these young people well. The university is also hoping to contribute an element of research to understand how innovative housing models like this can benefit all residents”

Approaches like these not only address the current housing crisis, but the challenges facing the NHS as well. According to the Centre for Ageing Better, investing in home improvement for older people would save the NHS over £1 billion annually, which is what is currently spent on health problems caused by poor housing.

We can and must do better in providing flexible housing solutions that benefit all generations. And isolated, exclusive retirement communities are not that solution.

Clare Delmar

Listen to Locals

29 September 2023


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