Straight Talk

Gareth Lyon at Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO) argues the case for retirement communities as a viable alternative to residential care, accelerated by COVID-19.

There seems to be broad agreement that after COVID-19, things must change. We must strive to do things better, to build a brighter future and to learn from recent events.

One area where this is particularly true is in social care.

Care has been right at the frontline in the battle against the virus and like any frontline, there have been many incredible tales of heroism, fighting against the odds and going the extra mile. Also like front lines, there has been an intense focus on systems which have struggled to cope and legitimate questions about the tactics employed and the overall strategy.

To extend the analogy, we seem to be a sector in which the latest tactical innovations and systems have not yet been mastered and in which generals (policy makers in our analogy) persist in fighting the last war with the same weapons in the same old way.

Probably the most interesting new approach to social care which has been emerging in recent years is extra care (also known as retirement villages, retirement communities and housing with care).

A recent report from The King’s Fund and the University of York, commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care, looked into the effectiveness of the retirement community model and made an overwhelming case for this sector playing a bigger role in the social care system in future.

The data shows that older people who move into retirement communities stay independent, healthier and active for longer than they otherwise would have done. They need less care provision, and the care provision they have is delivered at a significantly lower cost. They visit their doctors and go to hospital less often and spend less time there. They fall less and need fewer emergency call outs and are less frail, face lower cognitive decline and loneliness, and have longer life expectancies. They are also less likely to enter a care home.

It is unsurprising therefore that retirement communities are proving incredibly popular with older people – and that this popularity has increased during the COVID-19 crisis. We have reports of long waiting lists and increased enquiries and sales during the crisis. In addition, a recent report from Later Life Ambitions showed that large numbers of older people would be interested in moving into a retirement community, even more so when it is as an alternative to other forms of care.

As well as providing an excellent option in normal times, retirement communities have proved to be one of the best places an older person could be during the current crisis. Because people live independently, it has been much easier to shield and support isolation than in other care settings. Yet living on a shared and managed development means that they have access to far more support, care and community than would be the case in the wider community.

Care homes have fought valiantly against overwhelming odds in the crisis, but the fact is that too many people are ending up in care homes when there should be more alternatives. If retirement communities come to play a greater role in the social care sector, they can help to reduce this strain, complementing and extending services for older people to provide for different levels of care need.

Let us not forget that alongside the care sector, it is older people who have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis. As well as the appalling loss of life and health, many have had to shield and isolate for longer. Accordingly, they have faced a greater loss of independence, community and enjoyment of life than other age groups and, in many cases, have faced greater insecurity and worry. All at a time when they would be hoping to enjoy well-earned leisure.

Thankfully, now, with older people being prioritised for vaccination, there is a prospect of things getting better for them. Policy makers in Parliament increasingly understand the need for us to think more positively about older people and to give them more options – rather than treating them as a hindrance or an afterthought.

A great place for these policy makers to start would be in social care. Rather than focusing exclusively on how social care is paid for (important though this is), it is time to think about how care is provided.

If we want to build a social care system which puts the wishes of older people – for independence, wellness, quality of life and community – at its centre, retirement communities need to be a key part of this, complementing and extending existing options of high-quality care homes and domiciliary care.

Let’s learn these lessons quickly and work together for older people. Please get in touch if you support this call.

Gareth Lyon is Head of Policy and Communications at Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO) Twitter: @arcotweets

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About Gareth Lyon

Head of Policy and Communications, ARCO.

Gareth leads ARCO’s engagement with key decision makers and influencers, developing thought leadership on behalf of the sector and building its profile.

Gareth has worked in policy and communications for 16 years in a range of sectors including health, social care, education, science and technology. He also served as a local councillor for 11 years with experience in planning and community.

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