None of us are getting any younger

Creating the cities of the seventh age

Building more sheltered housing units is not enough in itself to solve the problems of an ageing population, according to a growing body of opinion. The future demands the creation of not just homes but ‘age friendly cities’, writes Mark Cantrell

 This article first appeared in Northern Housing

THE world is getting older. Now, while Mother Earth forever ages with eternal grace, for the human passengers hitching a ride through time, the ageing process is a little more problematic – the elders are gathering and our urban world just isn’t built to accommodate them.

Life in the 21st Century, then, is certainly hinting at ‘interesting times’ ahead, what with the supposed threats of global warming and climate change, various alleged dates of peak oil production, concerns over a housing market crash, sundry wars, and, according to one Russian doomsday cult, the End of the World by May 2008. So maybe we don’t need to worry anyway, unless one has pencilled in that carbon-belching foreign holiday for June.

On the other hand, while some of the woes alluded to above might go some way towards solving the demographic time bomb of an ageing population, hiding away in a cave certainly won’t. That’s why there is a growing body of opinion pushing for not just homes but cities to be made fit for all the Seven Ages of Man (and women too, of course).

In the UK, we’re used to understanding the context of a growing elderly population (post-60 for a general guide) in terms of pension support and provision, or in terms of healthcare, but outside of the appropriate professional circles there is less awareness of how ageing affects everything around us. Or at least potentially: for the most part our urban civilisation is not built for the convenience of the elderly and infirm but the hale and hearty – and above all young.

Historically, there’s a very good reason for this: the young outnumbered the old, who didn’t tend to linger long before the Reaper took them beyond the need for suitable housing provision. That’s changing. Fast. Not only are people living longer, they are living healthier for longer even if ultimately the morbidity of age catches up with us all. Even globally, fertility rates are down and older people are expected to outnumber children by 2047. In the developed world that has already happened, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – back in 1998.

So, the world faces the need for a major restructuring of its urban and social environments. This touches upon a host of issues, from housing to planning, to infrastructure, to retail, leisure, health and a wide variety of amenities and services. There is much to consider, a bewilderingly complex menu of food for thought to chew on – with or without the false teeth.

The issue is as local as it is global, with agencies at both the national and international level pushing for greater awareness of the myriad interlocking issues that need addressing to make the world more elder-friendly. Indeed, WHO published a guide to ‘Global age-friendly cities’ in October as part of a global initiative.

“Older people are concentrated in cities and will become even more so,” said Dr Alex Kalache, director of WHO’s Ageing and Life Course Programme. “Today around 75 per cent of all older people living in the developed world are urban dwellers – expected to increase to 80 per cent in 2015. More spectacularly, in developing countries the number of older people in cities will increase from 56 million in 2000 to over 908 million in 2050.”

In the UK, to bring matters to the more appropriate parochial level, the campaigning charity Help The Aged (HTA) together with Kings College London (KCL), launched their supporting report ‘What makes a city age friendly?’

Demographics are making it a pertinent and pressing question: older people need somewhere to live, just like their younger counterparts, to make life meaningful. They also need access to the wider community and beyond. As we get older, of course, the greater our needs become as regards health and support, but there is also need for the older end to remain connected to life. As HTA has said, some 1.4 million older people in the UK feel socially isolated. The reasons are legion, but in part relate to many familiar themes already underway in the housing world – to tackle poverty and both financial and social exclusion to name but a couple.

Professor Simon Biggs, the director of the Institute of Gerontology at KCL, said: “Age-friendly communities benefit people of all ages and taking an age-friendly perspective of any city shows up how it works well and where it works badly. Transportation, buildings and streets that are safe and reliable, and allow spaces for different generations to share in their communities should be a hallmark of any 21st Century environment.”

Clearly one can see how it fits into the already crowded housing agenda for the current century, and in theory at least, it involves ‘merely’ an added consideration to factor into designs and plans – such as building houses that can be readily adapted to suit people throughout the ‘seven ages’ of our lives. But what is an ‘age-friendly city’?

The WHO guide, which was aimed primarily at urban planners but nevertheless can be used as a resource for other interested bodies, suggests an environment with sufficient benches that are well-placed, well-maintained and safe; sufficient public toilets that are clean, secure and accessible for people with disabilities and well-indicated (something the younger generations will appreciate too). Other key features include well-maintained and well-lit pavements; housing integrated in the community that “accommodates changing needs and abilities as people grow older”; and public and commercial services and shops in neighbourhoods close to where people live, rather than concentrated outside the city.

In other words, to re-use the now-clichéd phrase, it’s the drive to create a ‘sustainable community’.

Obviously, this requires greater investment in specialist supported housing – such as Extra Care schemes, or the Government’s recent announcement of an extra £25 million to help people gain adaptations to their homes such as stairlifts and ramps, but it also requires so much more. Housing needs to be designed accordingly, and integrated into mainstream housing provision, complete with a diversity of affordable housing options for the older age ranges, as HTA has pointed out.

“We need a more robust approach to the future supply of affordable housing that is relevant to all of us at different stages in our lives. The consequences of not acting now will be an increase in numbers of older people trapped in poor, cramped and inaccessible housing – impacting on both their physical and mental well-being,” HTA stated in its response to the DCLG’s Green Paper ‘Homes for the future’ back in October.

“We live in an ageing population so we must now make sure our attitudes to ageing are positive,” said HTA’s director general Michael Lake. “Being age friendly is up to all of us – it starts in our own backyard and has a knock-on effect to other parts of the community. Having a guide for cities to be age-friendly is the first step towards creating a world where older people can live in a safe and welcoming environment. The evidence is there – the next stage is for cities and local authorities to take action.”

Obviously, we can’t afford to wait – none of us are getting any younger.

This article first appeared in Northern Housing magazine, December 2007. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 16 January 2008.

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