Re-establishing social life in old age – how good retirement accommodation is more than just structural

By Andrew Milsom, Sector Lead – Retirement Communities at NHBC

September 2023

an older couple sitting on a bench in the sunshine

The UK has an ageing population. This has been driven by steady improvements in life expectancy as medicine has advanced – this is good news of course, but it has an impact on all sorts of areas, including housing.

The Mayhew Review – Future-proofing retirement living: Easing the care and housing crises concluded the UK needs some 50,000 new homes for older people every year to tackle Britain’s housing and social care crisis. Currently that figure is at around just 7,000 per year.

Many older people find themselves in homes larger than they need or want, sometimes  isolated as independent travel becomes more challenging, or they find themselves unable to keep up with gardening and general maintenance. It’s believed increasing the provision of retirement housing would help older people stay well and more independent for longer, reducing costs for health services and care homes. It would also free up housing for first-time buyers and the younger generations, easing the stresses on the wider housing market. In the past, retirement housing might not have seemed a very attractive option – it had a reputation for being bland and utilitarian, a bleak necessity rather than a positive choice. Thankfully, that’s changed now – with the steady progression of the retirement sector and developers recognising older people want tailored solutions, a range of residential options for older people are now available. 

Older people might find themselves at a crossroads – wanting to downsize and perhaps access some support, while still independent enough to live alone and not wanting to move into a care home. That’s where residential retirement options come in – apartments or bungalows in a community of peers with a range of services, facilities and support, tailored to the resident.

Retirement communities bridge the gap between traditional retirement housing and care homes. They incorporate an element of personal care, provision for which can increase as the resident ages, if necessary. This gives peace of mind, as someone moving into a retirement community can feel confident their move is long term, rather than just a step in a journey towards a care home. It’s now understood good retirement living is about more than just the buildings. Quality housing is of course essential – attractive, practical, and efficient accommodation - but it’s the services, amenities and assistance offered alongside which can really make the difference. On site care is just one part of that – the modern retirement community offers much more.

The private retirement community concept is a relatively new one in the UK – it wasn’t until the mid-1970s schemes started appearing, often in town and city centres. Since then, the sector has grown, in size and scope. Developments for a range of needs and budgets have been created, right across Britain.

The main draw to specialist retirement accomodation is worry-free living – that home maintenance, cooking, gardening and their associated life admin are all taken care of. Often such developments have outdoor spaces to enjoy, on-site restaurants and cafes and a varied social calendar. With various communal spaces in addition to their own accomodation, residents can be as sociable or private as they wish. This flexibility means retirement communities are suitable for a wide range of people – its as suitable for those wanting lots of interaction and those who prefer a quieter social life.

Some developments offer more in the way of facilities than others – from fitness centres to swimming pools, expansive gardens and luxurious eateries, different needs and budgets are catered for. Some communities have a traditional architectural style and others a more contemporary aesthetic. The retirement community lifestyle is not just for the well off – affordable developments as well as premium options are available.

The idea of worry-free living is more than just being relieved of the practicalities of running a home however – a feeling of security and safety is important too. The uncertainties of knowing how long someone can stay living independently in their own home is calmed by specialist retirement accomodation and unease about personal safety too. On site staff at hand, as well as neighbours nearby, is a relief for many residents.

Benefits are more than just practical however – a sense of community is a key part of the modern retirement development – and not just with other residents either. The Mayhew Review revealed 6.2 million older people are set to live alone by 2040 – half of them aged 80 and over. This is a tremendous number of people and those living in suburbs or rurally could easily feel isolated. Many retirement communities are situated in town centres and other well-connected locations – this is intentional. As well as being close to shops and services, it means residents can play active roles in the local community, contribute to their local economy and easily access activities and social connections beyond their immediate residence. With the high street in decline and recent talk of reinvigorating town centres as residential centres, retirement communities can play an active part, with all residents benefiting from such developments. Many managers of retirement communities make a real effort to integrate with the world beyond. They bring the outside community in, ensuring residents can take part in local initiatives and events. Such developments are not separate satellites operating in isolation – they are increasingly an active and important part of their local community.

Sometimes locals are concerned health services will be overwhelmed with the development of a retirement community, but this is often not the case; most care can be managed on site by privately employed professionals. This is a great benefit for residents too as their needs can be handled quickly and efficiently by dedicated healthcare staff they know.

A survey of UK Retirement Community operators by The Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO) in 2020 found a “very significant” increase in the number of older people enquiring about and moving to Retirement Communities providing care and support. 65% of operators stated the most common drivers of this increase were a desire for more company and social interaction, and customers realising that the houses they were previously living in were not suitable anymore (also 65%). This shows older people are realising attractive alternatives to the traditional care home or remaining in their own house are available and accessible.

As the UK’s population continues to age the retirement community concept will continue to rise in popularity and become an important part of the landscape of many localities. Older people wanting to know more can find a wealth of information online or by contacting local providers, some of whom offer a ‘try before you buy’ trial, so they can understand the benefits before making the decision. The intangible benefits, those of a security, social and wellbeing nature, are challenging to demonstrate in a brochure.

NHBC works with the leading developers and operators of retirement communities to help them get it right first time. From conception to completion, our unrivalled expertise ensures a top quality build and long-term asset protection.

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