Do I Really Want to Die Before I Get Old?

With 80% of the homes that we will be living in by 2050 already built, retrofit for ageing is the big housing story

We each have our own life soundtrack. For boomers coming of age during the 60’s The Who’s “My Generation” became part of a collective, generational playlist. 

When Roger Daltrey sang “I hope I die before I get old” we believed him. 

Fifty four years down the line, Sue Adams, Chief Executive of Care & Repair England believes: “The Who have a lot to answer for when it comes to acceptance of older age as a desirable stage of life." (The death alternative, as she puts it, really is much worse).

According to Sue: "There can be an ostrich-like attitude to ageing, with so many people hoping 'it' will never happen, whatever 'it' is. Even for those with the means, there is often a reluctance to plan ahead, even as far as retirement income. So to anticipate being less mobile, let alone disabled, is way off most people's radar. 

We are living longer (good news) and live independently at home for longer (more good news.) Yet healthy life expectancy has not kept up with the past increases in life expectancy, and there is also a growing divide between rich and poor (both trends are not so good news.) Nearly half of all people over 65yrs have difficulty walking even a moderate distance, whilst just over 2 million people aged 65yrs+ have some degree of sight loss which impacts on their day-to-day living. 

Whilst medical advances can help to address these physiological changes, they will not eliminate this functional decline in the foreseeable future. One way to reduce the impact of such physical and sensory changes on day-to-day living is to alter the built environment, particularly the home, to accommodate such change. For example, improved lighting can go a long way to addressing eyesight decline, whilst alterations to the design and layout of key areas of our homes can make moving around them easier and safer. 

Time to Put the Fit into Retrofit 

I like my home. You probably like yours too, especially if you are over 50, in which case you are likely to be a homeowner with a fair amount of space to do what you like, be that dancing around the living room during Strictly, having your friends or grandchildren to stay for the weekend, or web surfing in your back bedroom (a.k.a. home office.) 

With evidence emerging of the value to health of maintaining social networks and avoiding loneliness in later life, living with good friends and neighbours in a well-established, mixed community seems like a good idea. Even if I wanted to move (and I currently don't) there aren't many homes in my area that would be much better for ageing than where I live now. So what better solution than to retrofit my current home to make it a better place to age?

In terms of the retrofit market, there is an interesting convergence of spending priorities for home improvement and later life independence. Upgrading kitchens and bathrooms is the biggest market when it comes to money spent on existing homes. As we age, the design of these two critical areas of the home have the greatest impact on our ability to live independently. 

Half of all government grant-funded home adaptations are related to use of the bathroom. Getting safely in and out of the bath is one of the first problems that people encounter in advance years. In the kitchen, the quality of lighting, positioning and design of storage and appliances can make all the difference to being able to continue to cook and look after yourself. 

And yet all too often the 'improved' kitchens and bathrooms that people put into their homes are poorly designed for ageing and can even make matters worse. Let's take lighting, unfortunately, what is often installed as part of modernisation is lighting that can make matters worse if your eyesight is less than perfect, e.g. spotlights that create pools of dark and shade and/or inadequate task lighting. 

In the case of kitchens, there is solid research that has identified the key inclusive design features that can make kitchens good places for people to live independently in later life. Yet this has not been taken on board by mainstream manufacturers. 

If Not Now, Then When? 

If we understand what works to make our homes more suitable for ageing, why isn't everyone applying this knowledge and proactively adapting ahead of a later-life crisis? Why are manufacturers not chasing this market? 

Given the negative connotations of old age, it is understandable that not only are people reluctant to view themselves as 'old', but also disinclined to purchase generic products that are identified as being for older people. Anecdotally, we hear from the retail sector that anything perceived as being designed for ageing is toxic in terms of wider marketing. 

Consequently, we have a situation where there is a niche market for specialist disabled home adaptations and equipment, much of which is only purchased and installed at the point when the individual is pretty desperate. The classic example would be an urgent need for rapid installation of a level access shower and/or stairlift, because an older person can no longer get in and out of the bath or negotiate the stairs as a consequence of falls-related injury. This crisis point decision-making is not conducive to driving market innovation or more widespread application of inclusive design. 

If we are to drive significant market change, we somehow have to overcome our reluctance to think and plan ahead when it comes to making homes better places to age, as well as finding ways to remove the barriers to advance retrofit.”

This article was written for Neighbourhoods of the Future 2019. An Agile Ageing Alliance publication in partnership with Tata Steel.

Sue Adams will be speaking at the AAA's 5th Congress at NatWest HQ London May 14 and 15. If you are interested in attending register here.

To read an extended version of this article and/or download the report follow this link.

Image courtesy Alamy/Pictorial Press