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Modern Family

June 2018 Issue

I visited my parents this weekend – both of whom are in their ‘80s - and was confronted with some of the nastier realities of growing older. Seeing my father slipping into dementia is just not pleasant. And that says nothing of how difficult it’s become for his principal carer, my mother, who finds the thought of moving him to more suitable accommodation only slightly more horrible than the demands of looking after him in an entirely unsuitable house.

But it reminded me that we’re facing a huge challenge in catering for the growing number of senior citizens in our society. The Office for National Statistics reported in 2016 that the population in the UK is getting older with 18% aged 65 and over and 2.4% aged 85 and over. By 2036 they expect that proportion to have increased by about a further 50% - but that’s against an overall population increase of nearly 10 million – meaning the actual number of people over 65 will roughly double from nearly 12 million now to something over 20 million by 2036.

That’s a lot of extra ‘adult’ nappies.

And a lot of extra ‘adult’ homes too – by which I mean homes that can provide for the specific needs of an ageing population. I’ve had some recent professional experience of this myself as we have an assisted living scheme submitted for planning permission at the moment. Some of the requirements in the brief were obvious: level thresholds to allow for wheelchair access, and lift access to all floors – but some were less so – the fixed width of a wheelchair required us to design very wide corridors (to enable to wheelchairs to pass each other face on) and the lift had to be big enough to ‘take a body lying down’ – which sent a slight shiver down the spine.

Sinister points aside however there’s been much to enjoy during the design process. Part of our thinking was to create a building that we ourselves would be happy to live in when we get older. A place to stay active and engaged. That’s meant slightly less chintz and fewer spittle soaked wingback chairs – and more swim yoga and herb gardening.

We also found it helpful to remember that the generation that is growing old now is the generation that went to the moon, popularized LSD and came up with Woodstock. These are not boring people. Though they are a bit Brexit-y – which reminds me of the other side of the coin, the youth who were statistically more Remain-y. While we must allow our senior citizens to grow old in comfort and with dignity - we must also ensure that we don’t bankrupt the next generation in doing so. Among the many polarities we have in our society at present is, regrettably, the one that pitches an isolationist affluent home-owning older generation against a disenfranchised younger generation of renters bound together in collective, relative, poverty.

One of the scarier statistics that the ONS has also hit on is what it calls the Old Age Dependency Ratio (OADR) which is a measure of the number of over-65s per 1000 of population. That ratio too is set to double to a national average of nearly 500 over-65s per 1000 of population but with some areas way higher than that. North Norfolk for example is expected to have 834 over-65s per 1000 head of population by 2036. And all this to be paid for by the first generation of citizens in centuries that is set to be poorer, in real terms, than their parents. Those of you building rental properties for millennials and silver surfers alike will already be family with some of these numbers as your business cases spit out future income projections – just make sure that there’s enough actual capital being created for our future nation of renters, young and old, to be able to afford the rent!

Which make me wonder whether we can bring these two ends of society closer together – and spread the love, and the capital, around a bit?

One of the most interesting models I’ve seen emerging recently has been pioneered by the Dutch care home group Humanitas Deventer’s “exchange” programme which provides students with ‘free’ accommodation in their nursing homes in exchange for up to 30 hours of time spent with those older people in their care. The programme has seen students in their early twenties sharing lives with residents in their eighties and nineties. As part of their volunteer agreement, the students are teaching residents new skills – like how to email, use social media, Skype, and even graffiti art. In addition to the accommodation provided for the students, and reduced overheads for the care provider their research has shown that reducing loneliness and social isolation in the older generation improves wellbeing and extends life expectancy too.

But isn’t the most obvious model for this the family? Which brings me back to thinking about my mother.

I’m happy to report that she remains so active that she continues to swim every day which keeps her hale and hearty.

But she does do this in the local river, and she is naked, and in winter she’ll break through the ice if necessary.

So on reflection it’s not just my father - perhaps she’s going a bit demented too…

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