Challenging a culture of blame

In a week which saw an Institute for Fiscal Studies report highlighting the growing disparity of wealth/ poverty between young and old, we also saw tabloid headlines about ‘Millions of older people failing to adapt their homes’ in response to ILC-UK’s latest report.

Why did I publicly object to this latter headline? Does such language actually matter?

I strongly believe that it does matter as it contributes to a growing culture of blame and intolerance.

The more that the narrative around ‘older people’ is a portrayal of the negative (houseblockers, bedblockers, failing to save for/ plan for retirement) the greater the risk of simplistic and crude attribution of fault to individuals for complex and difficult social issues. We risk pitting ‘young’ against ‘old’ when the reality is so much more nuanced.

For starters, just as at all other stages of life, there is great diversity of the experience of older age, including significant inequalities – of wealth and income, quality of home and neighbourhood, healthy vs unhealthy life expectancy and so on.

Add to this the reality that the current built environment, and housing in particular, is not well designed for an ageing population. Whereas the Disability Discrimination Act has brought about a revolution in accessible public space (no-one thinks twice now about dropped curbs, level thresholds and automatic doors into and out of shops) this is not the case with regard to the housing stock. The perspective of the disability movement of the 80s and 90s was clear – people are disabled by the world around them and so the built environment should be changed to be more accessible. So why don’t we apply the same ideas to accommodate population ageing?

The reasons why most people ‘fail’ to adapt their own homes in advance of possible physical decline in later life are many and various.

For most of us, there is the hope that loss of physical function may never happen – and indeed for many it doesn’t, with only half of those over 65yrs reporting mobility problems (albeit that this increases significantly after 75yrs and 85yrs).

Even for people who are finding day to day living harder (most commonly, difficulty with stairs/ steps/ getting in and out of the bath) there are emotional and financial barriers to installing adaptations.

In a culture where youth and fitness is all, with ‘stay young forever’ the popular culture backdrop, no-one wants to admit that they are getting old and that infirmity is setting in.

Even when people do want to adapt their homes, many home modifications are expensive and unaffordable to lower income people. Even for those with money, faced with a high level of intensive marketing it can be hard to choose the most appropriate adaptation – it is not easy to find impartial, independent information and advice.

For those who can’t afford to pay (both tenants and home owners) there are considerable barriers-  few people have even heard of Disabled Facilities Grants, let alone have any idea how to get this help.

Hence my annoyance at a headline which says older people are failing to adapt their homes.

A revolution is needed both in the design of all new homes and also in the design and mainstreaming of accessible design features in general housing (think fashionable wet-room vs ‘adapted’ bathroom). The ‘public image’ of home adaptations needs a make over. These have to become less of an outward manifestation of losing mobility [and by implication, control] and be seen as a positive way of creating a good place to live that enables independence. We can but try. [July 2016]

[this Blog has also been published by ILCUK, click here]

A Glimmer of Hope?

One of the consequences of the recent tumultuous events is a sense that everything else in the political and policy arena is on hold.

This includes housing policy, where the focus is on speculation about a possible market crash.

However, life does move on, people need homes and the issue of decent housing for an ageing population still needs a radical policy response.

This week saw two long awaited reports of relevance to this subject published. The first to come along was the preliminary report of the Local Government Association’s Housing Commission, ‘Building our Homes, Communities and Future.’

At this point I declare an interest as I have been acting as one of the two ‘ageing and health section’ expert advisers to the Commission and our detailed input has been into the sub-section on ageing. However, we have tried to make the case that consideration of population ageing and building homes that support healthy living and well-being across the life course, need to woven in throughout the Commission’s report. I hope that others will support this bigger picture vision for design of an accessible, inclusive built environment.

The second report is the culmination of many years of important research, debate and deliberation about the necessary policy response to demographic change and an ageing society. This is the Government Office for Science’s summary report of its ‘Foresight’ Project into ageing, ‘Future of an Ageing Population’.

This report has an extensive section about housing and notes that building suitable new homes and supporting the adaptation of the existing housing stock will be critical as the population ages. The section also reflects how interconnected housing is to all of the other considerations – wealth/ assets/ health/ work/ transport/ neighbourhoods and technology.

We can only hope that in the latter case the evidence, conclusions and recommendations will be taken up whoever eventually takes up the reins of government.


8th July 2016