The age of reason

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Ann Bentley


Ann Bentley


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RLB Global Board Member, Ann Bentley, discuses the UK’s demographic timebomb:

The Lancet Journal published a report recently stating that over the next 10 years the overall population of the UK will increase by around 5%, but the number of people aged 75 years and older will increase by 16% – that’s an additional 800,000 people over the age of 75. A staggering statistic in its own right, but even more significant when you consider that in the same period the number of 21 to 60 year olds (the most economically active group) is forecast to fall by over a million and the number of under 18s is also set to grow by ¾ million.

Let’s stop and have a think about that for a moment. 1m fewer economically active people and 1.5m more under 18s and over 75s. You don’t have to be a mathematician to work out the pressure this will put on the economy in general, residential markets, our healthcare, our education provision and our social infrastructure.

The UK is an advanced economy, we are proud of our history, our welfare “safety-net,” our great educational institutions and the NHS. Yet we all know things are creaking at their seams. As the NHS presently struggles to avoid bankruptcy and in the shadow of the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower, how will the shaky minority government, swamped with Brexit negotiations, cope with this massive demographic change?

Is the NHS geared up to deal with the sheer numbers and do we need a totally new approach to housing? How do we accommodate an additional two million over 65s living in our communities, when many are already living in inefficient properties not fit for purpose as residents grow older, unable to afford to modernise, or adapt to their changing physical and mental wellbeing? And how do we create or free-up appropriate, affordable, housing for the families with young children at the other end of the housing spectrum.

Let’s add into the mix the estimated tens of thousands of pensioners who might head home from European shores post Brexit, needing to relocate as they find they can no longer access free healthcare. And of course, let’s not forget the consequential £ 500 million that it is estimated their healthcare might cost.

The ticking time bomb of our demographic is the single biggest issue that we have to address as a nation. It goes far deeper than property and for once, isn’t just about money. It’s about ownership, planning, responsibility …..and money.

So where does the responsibility lie?

In hospitals across the country we see short-term care wards effectively having become hotel rooms occupied by those too vulnerable to be at home, but well enough not to be in hospital. In the residential sector, we watch as older people struggle on in inappropriate housing, not out of choice, but because they are either too frail to make a move, or there is nowhere else for them to go. This in turn puts greater pressure on the limited social care resources, and inappropriate home-care leads to much greater levels of hospital re-admissions – a terrible vicious circle. And the social care providers are staffed with large numbers of EU migrants, so when we leave the EU the pressure on this system may increase further.

Of course anyone over the age of 18 is an adult, and so the primary responsibility for the aging population, as with any other capable adult, is themselves! But in truth, as a society we provide different levels of support to different groups. State-funded sure-start, nursery places and schools provide a back-bone of support for young people, universities provide accommodation and pastoral care for students, employers provide support structures for their staff, and the welfare state provides a basic safety net for everyone.

But what happens to the older population? Where do they turn when they don’t need a safety net, but they simply don’t know what the options are or what they might be able to do?

All sides around the political table talk about the “ageing population” yet no-one seems to have answers. So what about:

  • Government funding maintenance and adaptations to improve the properties lived in by older people, thus reducing their fuel consumption, rather than providing a winter fuel allowance.
  • In local authority plans, giving the same priority to housing for older people as starter homes and family housing – make it a compulsory element of all significant residential developments.
  • Embracing the internet and digital technology to properly plan and co-ordinate the care, medical and housing needs of people across all agencies.
  • Constructing purpose-built housing aimed at older people which caters for their needs and aspirations and is of a decent size. Make it somewhere people want to live, rather than where they go to prepare to die!

Wouldn’t this be a better longer term solution for our UK residential estate as well as keeping the people out of hospital beds, therefore reducing the pressure on the NHS?

Thinking more laterally and looking across the waters to global solutions might be another good place to start. With RLB offices around the world, we share best practice and look to Sweden, where co-operative living for the over 65s is being embraced or Holland where there are innovative developments for dementia care.

In North America, where there is a general acceptance that if you want some-thing you pay for it, those fortunate enough to own property actively down-size, moving into smaller properties and retirement villages, to give themselves purpose built housing and greater financial security in their later years.

Perhaps the most obvious solution of all is to really focus on new-build, off-site manufactured housing for “last-time buyers”. There is a build-up of momentum for off-site manufacture, but there are still major problems in terms of standardisation, mortgageability and guaranteed pipeline for manufacturers. The needs of this smaller sub-set of residents is more easy to define than the whole population and so it should be possible to produce a broad set of standard layouts, older buyers tend to be either mortgage-free or live in social rented accommodation, so lending restraints are not such a problem, and we are all living longer, so the pipeline of work must be there. Bingo!

There is no simple solution to the effects of an ageing population. However, there are definitely different ways of looking at the reality we face and coming up with solutions that really are patient-resident-client centric. The political leaders that realise this will be the ones that really make a difference to all our lives, from the cradle to the grave.

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