Why is retirement housing still such an unpopular option?

Age UK’s panel of residents found social and private housing providers could improve their services for older people

Controversial arguments over the under-occupation of large family homes by older people have prompted a useful debate about whether retirement housing could play a more prominent role in solving our housing shortage. Today just 7% of older people live in the sheltered and retirement housing sector. Most people still appear to prefer to stay in their own homes as they age, holding on to the space they have. Although remaining in mainstream housing is a common aspiration, shouldn’t retirement housing be an attractive and practical solution for more of people?

Retirement housing should reduce worries about repairs and maintenance, provide a safe, sociable and supportive environment, and offer a basic level of care and support that can help people live independently for longer. So why isn’t it more popular, and more available?

The barriers that developers and commissioners face to the expansion of retirement housing have been widely debated, and an investigation by the all-party parliamentary group on housing and care was published recently. Age UK has also looked at the issue, but from a consumer perspective. We published a report written by residents living in sheltered social housing and private sector retirement properties. They conducted a small inquiry, which sees retirement housing as a positive option but highlights common problems that are likely to put off future generations of older people.

Surprisingly, one of the most significant problems is a lack of awareness among older people about what sheltered and retirement housing can offer. This problem is often exacerbated by the stigma surrounding retirement housing, which is often seen as a sign of decline rather than as a way of leading a more active, sociable and independent life.

This negative image could be a homegrown problem; in other parts of Europe high-quality, flexible design and good locations has made retirement housing much more attractive.

A lack of understanding about retirement housing is exacerbated by constant change in the sector and instability caused by the recession. Social housing providers are reducing the number of scheme managers and wardens they employ, despite protests from residents who say this service is what defines sheltered housing. In the private sector, residents are feeling squeezed by rising service charges.

Our panel told us that older people want greater transparency (particularly around ongoing costs), a greater sense of control over the management of their schemes and complaints over poor services to be taken seriously.

One of the biggest barriers to good-quality retirement housing is that it is too expensive. Those who move into retirement housing sometimes discover this too late, because they haven’t received good advice or information to help them determine whether it is a realistic option.

Meanwhile the leasehold system in the private sector can make buying retirement housing unnecessarily complex. Many residents and their families have been caught out by charges when a property is sold or transferred. Although it would be difficult to completely reconfigure the existing leasehold system, more could be done to introduce a different form of tenure, such as commonhold, to give residents greater ownership and control.

The residents who took part in our inquiry also called for better leadership from government to bring greater stability to the sector and encourage investment in housing for older people.

Local authorities need to make it much easier to develop well designed and flexible retirement housing in the right places. Despite government reluctance, we urgently need improvements in the regulatory framework for the sector to minimise the chances of older people being ripped off and exploited. Clearer regulation would stimulate competition because providers would have to operate on a level playing field and would be less likely to hide charges in the small print.

The panel also said there should be greater parity between the social and private sectors on rights to consultation – housing association residents should be able to change their landlord if they are unhappy with the management of their scheme. Future generations will expect more control as an evolution of existing provisions such as the “right to manage”, but also through new forms of housing such as co-housing and co-operative housing.

Finally, older people need access to better advice and information so they can easily see what’s available and properly assess whether retirement housing is the right option for them.

The residents who took part in the inquiry are hoping that many more older residents will get involved in the debate. If the housing sector is unresponsive to the concerns of the consumer, future generations may continue to see retirement housing as an unattractive option.

Joe Oldman is a housing policy adviser at Age UK

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