Designing housing to build companionship in later life

  • Exclusive polling finds London and the North West have the highest levels of loneliness amongst older people in the country, and Yorkshire the lowest
  • Over a million older people always or often feel lonely
  • Report finds a ‘people and place’ strategy is central to tackling isolation, and that redesigning ‘cities for all ages’ could help prevent social disengagement
  • Author recommends sociability, activities and sense of community found in retirement housing be used as a model in future housing provision

Loneliness in the older generation can be combatted through better housing design, building ‘cities for all ages’, and encouraging ‘socialisers’ to motivate outliers into activity, according to a new report published today.

The report – Building Companionship: how better design can combat loneliness in later life – was undertaken by cross-party think tank Demos with the support of McCarthy & Stone to better understand how loneliness amongst older people can be tackled. It comes amid growing concerns around isolation, with research for the report finding that those aged over 80 are almost twice as likely to report feeling lonely compared to their younger counterparts (14.8% of 16-64s report this, compared to 29.2% over the over 80s).

The report highlights wide regional variations in loneliness: Londoners aged 55+ report the highest levels, with four out of five (81%) feeling lonely at least some of the time, citing a lack of community spirit and support. In contrast, Yorkshire and Humberside emerged as the least lonely region, with 47% of over 55s saying they had not felt lonely at any point during the past 12 months, with local communities and neighbours playing a large role.

The impact of loneliness is significant and well documented – from poorer mental health to a greater risk of falling and hospitalisation. This, in turn, has obvious cost implications for the NHS, social care and the wider economy.

The report looked at the high levels of companionship found in retirement developments for lessons that could be learnt for how wider building design could address social isolation. It found that 85% of those surveyed in McCarthy & Stone developments said there is a good sense of community in their development, compared to just 51% of those aged 55+ in the wider community. What’s more, those who live in retirement housing tend to report feeling much less lonely than their peers in mainstream housing.

The report recommends a number of lessons that can be applied from retirement housing to wider neighbourhood design, including:

  • Place: The creation of ‘cities for all ages’ – areas incorporating transport, housing, street furniture and green space which enable older people to remain socially, physically and mentally active. The report highlights small scale schemes such as Gloucestershire Village and Community Agents, Rotherham Social Prescribing Scheme and Living Well Cornwall which help to address isolation among older people.
  • People: Local authorities should encourage active citizenship amongst the older generation, recruiting ambassadors to work with their peers to encourage social engagement and inclusion in the area. These ambassadors should also engage with private sector companies to help provide opportunities for socialising.

The report also recommends:

  • Increasing the provision of retirement housing: This is integral to the success of the fight against loneliness in older people given its many benefits. National and local policy makers are encouraged to help unlock supply and boost the development and availability of age appropriate housing for older people keen to downsize.
  • Neighbourhood planning strategies to have a Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and Health and Wellbeing Strategies to match. Statutory guidance should ensure loneliness‎ is identified as a public health risk and as such needs to be tackled as part of health and care commissioning.
  • Real social networks: Schemes that develop older people’s IT skills to prioritise education around activity which will result in ‘real life’ interactions such as joining forums and local groups.

Commenting on the report, co-author, Claudia Wood, Chief Executive of Demos, commented:

This report provides an important evidence base on the role that people’s surroundings play in shaping their levels of well-being, and is a wake-up call to an emerging crisis of loneliness and isolation amongst older people in the UK. As our population ages, there is no doubt that we need to urgently consider new approaches to the design of both public and private spaces, to ensure they are inclusive to older people, and encourage healthy, active and sociable lives. Our research makes the case that placing community connectedness and interaction at the heart of housing developments and urban planning could help to mitigate the substantial personal, economic and social costs posed by the increasing isolation of many older people.

Clive Fenton, CEO of McCarthy & Stone, the UK’s leading retirement housebuilder, added:

We supported this report to explore the extent to which older people are less lonely in retirement housing, and whether lessons might be learnt for wider aspects of housing policy, such as neighbourhood planning. The findings are compelling – our homeowners are typically much happier and better connected than their peers in the community. In turn, this delivers significant cost savings for the NHS, social care and wider economy due to the link between not feeling lonely and better health. But building more retirement housing is just one solution to combatting loneliness – developers and local and national government should review the recommendations in this report and consider adapting how we design neighbourhoods more generally.”

Building Companionship: how better design can combat loneliness in later life is available to download now here.