Living in the future of retirement

Silver chic in the world of tomorrow

Unless the Reaper picks us off early, we’re all going to grow old, writes Mark Cantrell, so we need to spare a thought to how we’ll live in those senior years to come. But no matter how well-informed we are, second-guessing the future is notoriously difficult; fertile ground, then, for a vivid imagination

This article first appeared in the February/March 2016 edition of Housing magazine

FUTUROLOGY is fraught with difficulties – we’re still waiting for those flying cars (which is probably just as well) – but even if our predictions amount to little more than science fiction, that hardly makes it a frivolous pursuit. Tomorrow, after all, is an undiscovered country we can’t afford to leave unexplored, especially when it comes to coping with advancing age.

There are some things we know. Our society is growing older. There are already more than 11 million people aged 65 or over in the UK and the number of senior citizens are only forecast to grow. By 2033, it is projected there will be 3.5 million extra older households in England alone – 60 per cent more than exists today.

What’s more, to add a further twist to an already bitter and cruel housing crisis, there’s a serious shortage of housing suitable for an older generation, whether that be the kind that provides care and support to those that need it, more general retirement housing, or just smaller properties suitable for older people to downsize to (thereby freeing up larger homes for young families).

We can also add that, barring some kind of societal catastrophe, the future of housing – for oldsters and youngsters alike – is going to feature an array of smart technologies. Quite how that will shape up is anybody’s guess, for all the hype – technology is notoriously fast-moving and fickle.

Undeterred by all the inevitable uncertainties, in December last year the housing provider Anchor presented its Silver Chic report, written by journalist and policy consultant Sonya Sodha. The think-piece document dares to envision what retirement housing may look like 50 years from now. With its vision of 3D holographic computers and virtual pets, it is clearly having some fun with futurology but for all that, the report has a serious message.

“There are a number of very significant issues facing the retirement sector in the coming decades and we will need new, innovative forms of retirement housing and care services to respond to these trends,” said Howard Nankivell, Anchor’s director of operations. “Good quality housing that meets the needs of the end user has huge potential to help people live happy and healthier lives, delaying the need to move from independent living into residential care.

“This is turn helps reduce the ever-increasing pressure of our ageing population on the NHS, as well as unlocking valuable housing stock at the top end of the market. Innovative and thought-provoking designs, such as these [in the report], are just some suggestions of what could and need to become a reality in the future if we are to try and tackle the issues facing older people.”

The report is calling for greater action from both local and central government to create the conditions to grow a “flourishing” retirement market, with enough suitable housing to cater for the growing numbers of older people. It outlines three key measures: the introduction of a national taskforce on retirement housing; exemptions from stamp duty for older people; and reform of the current planning system.

As for its vision of the retirement home itself, well it certainly looks like the set of a near-future science fiction movie, but that’s partly the point – to challenge thinking and encourage innovation today.

The house would be built in a manner that can be adapted and customised to the buyer’s requirements, allowing them to shape both internal and external space and layout. It even rotates on a turntable, offering both sunlight and shade at the resident’s request. The homes in this tomorrow-land are arranged in a village-like cluster, linked by bridges. This will foster a sense of community, it says. Furthermore, covered winter gardens and parks allow the residents to be out and about with their neighbours, no matter the weather, encouraging a healthier and more active lifestyle.

Internally, integrated smart technology allows ambient monitoring walls, which keeps an eye on the occupant’s health and wellbeing. High speed internet, a virtual fridge, and a host of apps and functions are available at the touch of a button. The coffee table, meanwhile, offers a 3D hologram computer, controlled from the comfort of the sofa, which can create an “augmented reality” within the home, regulate lighting and sound, and even generate virtual pets. Presumably, you can still use the table for its traditional purpose too – just don’t forget a coaster to avoid coffee rings.

This high-tech habitation sounds frightfully expensive, it must be said; techno-homes for the more affluent of pensioners. With current Government policies casting real doubt on the future of general social rented housing, and concerns over the ability of social care services to cope with an ageing society today, let alone tomorrow, you have to wonder where the average pensioner resides in Anchor’s vision of tomorrow.

Well, the answer isn’t Anchor’s alone; responsibility for that one belongs to all of us, citizens and policymakers alike. But Nankivell suggests the tendency for technology to become cheaper will go some way to extending the reach of its vision.

“This project is about pushing the boundaries of innovation and design and creating a vision for the future of retirement housing in England,” he said. “Initially, this solution would be more relevant for the private market, but as the technology becomes more readily available, it will also become more affordable. By providing more choice over house design and using modular, customised and adaptable living space, it means that higher density housing can be built providing more cost-effective options for people across a range of socio-economic groups.”

Another pertinent question exists over the ability of older people to get to grips with a technology unfamiliar to them from their younger years – especially for those slipping into cognitive decline. Even for today’s tech-savvy youngsters, the pace of change is surely set to shift from exhilarating to bewildering as they advance in age. It’s the nature of this fast-moving world we now inhabit; the answer, suggests Anchor, lies in the increasing sophistication of the technology itself.

“As technology advances, so will usability; for example, voice activated commands will be important for older people who are using 3D hologram computers in the future,” Nankivell said. “We will also be able to monitor people in non-intrusive ways, such as ambient monitoring and wearable technology, although technology must augment rather than replace relationships.

“It’s also possible to ensure that the correct environment is in place to aid use among older people. For example, Anchor is pioneering the use of iPads in care settings and we know that having the right font sizes, brightness, longer idle times before screensavers appear all make a difference for older people. The more the technology advances, the more user-friendly it becomes.”

Anchor’s work using iPads to improve the quality of life for older people is perhaps all the more remarkable in that it is dealing with people you might at first consider are well beyond the reach of modern tech – those living with dementia. But according to a study it conducted with the University of Worcester’s Association for Dementia Studies, that perception does not necessarily hold true.

The findings were released last year following an eight-month study. Anchor provided tablets to 75 per cent of its 63 care homes across the country and their impact was assessed. It found that in 98 per cent of cases, the iPads were used to create new activities or develop existing ones, suggesting the technology was doing rather more than simply “digitising” what the care homes were already doing.

Apparently, the iPads were allowing greater interaction between residents, with 56 per cent of staff able to involve 10 or more residents in activities at one time, with relatives also cited as a key benefit – 46 per cent of staff involved family members through the use of iPads. In essence, the research identified a range of positive outcomes for residents with dementia, including increased interaction, greater inclusion, and improved communication with relatives.

“This is the first time we’ve seen iPads introduced within care settings in this kind of comprehensive, considered way and at this scale,” said Dr Simon Evens, principal research fellow, who led the study. “Central to our findings is that just having the technology present isn’t enough. The key is how the iPads are introduced and used and the training and support provided to staff to make the most of their potential to enhance quality of life.

“If used in the right way, iPads make a big difference to people living with dementia. This represents an innovative and significant step in understanding the role technology plays in improving quality of life and wellbeing.”

Anchor isn’t the only organisation that’s been exploring the ways in which digital technology is helping the older generation; Sanctuary Housing has been putting iPads to work too.

“We are living in an increasingly digital world and, although this has transformed almost every aspect of people’s lives, it’s important to recognise others may need a little extra support,” a spokesperson said. “For older people in particular, having digital skills can open up a whole new world of possibilities, creating connections through social technology, reducing isolation and loneliness, and increasing the sense of belonging to a community.”

Sanctuary has formed a partnership with Bristol-based charity Alive! to help bridge the so-called digital divide. In a year-long programme, the two organisations are using technology to bring residents of the housing provider’s Beach Lawns Residential & Nursing Home in Weston-super-Mare together with pupils from the nearby Bournville Primary School.

The so-called iPals scheme sees resident and pupil getting to know each other by using picture collages on iPads. The iPals offer each other encouragement and support, with residents learning to search for their favourite songs or films, and using Skype to speak with their loved ones.

At another of its care homes, residents have been encouraged to use the technology to get back in touch with hobbies and memories, exploring them through a variety of apps. Evidently, the technology is kind of bringing them back to life.

“Despite technology being perceived as the domain of the young, Sanctuary’s residents encourage us by showing that you are never too old to learn something new,” the spokesperson added. “Recognising the benefits of modern technology gives access to new opportunities, new ways of connecting, communication and ensuring people feel part of the digital age.”

Tablet technology is certainly more here and now than holographic computers, but for somebody whose formative years long proceeded this age of silicon, it must still seem like living in a science fiction future. The rest of us, meanwhile, had better get ready to start living the sequel.  

This article first appeared in the February/March 2016 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently republished on the Housing Excellence website, 15 March 2016

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