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Into Perspective: Are retirement communities the future of social care?

With a focus on helping people to stay independent for as long as possible, many authorities have been looking to homecare as a means of supporting those who can stay in their own homes. But with their flexible systems, could retirement communities be a different answer?

Everyone is hoping for reform of social care in the near future, and much of this conversation is focused on how care homes and homecare could alter. However, retirement communities don’t often form a large part of the talks and could offer a large part of the solution.

Retirement communities claim to present something different to both care homes and homecare. Often purpose-built, these developments offer a tailored level of independence, depending on individual need.

Residents may purchase or rent their home in the community, which might have additional security and staff on site 24-hours a day for peace of mind; homecare is available to those who require it, and there is often a host of extra services such as hairdressers, restaurants, and communal areas.

The idea is for people to be able to move in before or as they start to need care and support, and to be able to stay there with increasing levels of support until the end of life.

What’s the future for retirement communities?

It’s a sector that is looking to expand, with representative body, Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO), having set out a detailed plan to have 250,000 people living in retirement communities by 2030. Currently this number sits at around 75,000 people.

The organisation suggests that if this Vision 2030 were to be achieved, it would free up over 560,000 bedrooms onto the housing market and would save £5.6bn for the UK’s health and social care systems until 2030.

ARCO’s research also shows that the UK is behind in this arena of the market. It states that just 0.6% of older people live in retirement communities in the UK, compared to 6.1% in the US, 5.4% in New Zealand and 4.9% in Australia.

What would more retirement communities mean?

Catching up with other countries in terms of the number of retirement communities available will take time, but could the benefits to wider systems and people seeking an alternative model of care make these efforts worthwhile? Just some of the beneficial outcomes are:

  • Job creation – ARCO estimates that around 63 permanent jobs are created for every 250-unit retirement community.
  • A cheaper alternative to homecare, with costs around 17.8% lower per person per year for lower-level social care and 26% lower for those with a higher level of need.
  • A reduction in the number of people entering care homes.
  • A reduction in residents’ feelings of loneliness and isolation.

The benefits of this model cannot be ignored, but will care homes and homecare services always have a place in the social care system, or are retirement communities the future?

Let’s embrace the opportunity

It is no secret that in the UK we have an ever-increasing ageing population, with 160,000 households of over 65s being added to our society each year.  Figures suggest that, by 2040, there will be 20 million surplus bedrooms within homes across the UK; 60% of which are in houses occupied by those over 65.

We know that social care costs are spiralling, and that in many situations older people are unable to return to their homes from hospital because they cannot access the support they require to safely do so. And many of those homes are unsuitable for older people to live in.

There is an answer to these seemingly intractable – and hugely socially and financially important – challenges, and it comes in the form of retirement communities. Done well, these enhance life and are of huge benefit to society. It is time that they are embraced by Government as part of the answer.

Retirement villages offer a third option; a choice that lies between care homes and care at home. Not only do they allow people the chance to continue living independently in properties that are designed to cater for their changing needs, they also provide a much-needed sense of community. With restaurants, cafés, libraries and cinemas, these villages are a place to live and enjoy social situations with like-minded individuals. They are also able to provide care and wellbeing services, at an efficient price point – both to those living in the village and into the local community.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows how people living in retirement villages stay healthier for longer and live more active lives. And, fundamentally, they create spaces where people are more likely to be happier and less likely to be lonely.

Does this require ‘radical reform’ or would some incentivisation to encourage right sizing into community living be successful? We do need change – we need more care workers and we need the NHS and social care systems to be joined up – but that might take a long time, and that is time we don’t have. So let’s do some simple things, quickly, to encourage the development of more retirement communities in the UK.

They will be a part of the solution, so let’s embrace the opportunity for enhanced living that they provide, right now.

Nick Edwards, Chief Operating Officer, Audley Group

To move forward, we need more operators

We’ve been saying retirement communities are a big part of the future of social care for over a decade.

For the more able-bodied senior not requiring specialist dementia or nursing care, a retirement community is an excellent accommodation option.

It offers the benefit of on-site support and care (if required), the independence and privacy that comes from having your own front door, while also providing a sense of community and access to key services. Importantly, there are also benefits from an infection control perspective, with the ability to self-isolate clearly contributing to low incidences of COVID-19 in retirement communities to date.

Despite these positives, and the proven success of the model in other developed nations, retirement communities are still a long way from maturity in the UK.

To move the sector forward in earnest, we need more operators to develop and manage schemes on a long-term basis. There are just too few currently. In future, operators might come from other operational real estate sectors, such as hotels and leisure. COVID-19 may even act as a catalyst for this; with lockdown bringing much of the commercial property world to a halt, healthcare real estate and specifically retirement communities, have probably never looked more attractive.

Much noise is made over the barriers of planning. However, despite the lack of clarity regarding classification, we know from our research with ARCO that 63% of older people’s housing schemes are granted. The more pressing issue is that just 11% of those granted permissions result in development. With more operators, fewer of these schemes would need to be so speculative.

In addition, to truly take centre stage in the future of social care, the sector must find a way to provide these communities as part of a true mid-market offering that takes into account the current average house price of £239,766.

It will take some very talented individuals and management teams to overcome these challenges and barriers to entry, but the rewards are there for those who are successful, as demonstrated by the fantastic operators who are leading way in this sector already.

Tom Hartley, Director, Carterwood

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