Blog: How would you like to live in later life?
Published: 16 Apr 2019
“I feel a lot more optimistic about my future!” This was how a friend of mine responded when I talked to them about the innovative housing models for older people that I visited in Japan, the USA and Canada on my Churchill Fellowship last year.
Solutions to affordable housing in later life are important to me professionally, as a researcher in health and social care, as well as personally. I have often asked myself - how would I like my family or myself to live as we get older? People reliant solely on their state pension are priced out of many housing options, while care homes can feel clinical, institutional and lacking in a sense of community.
Inspired by the creators, radicals and eccentrics that I met on my travels, three big ideas have stuck with me.
First - homes and communities should build connections and dependence, rather than focusing on independence. After touching down in Japan and entering the suburbs of Tokyo, I visited Koinonia, a small care home for people with dementia. The ethos was of a big extended family: staff brought their children to work and communal areas were shared. The CEO told me that they had wanted the building to feel small because he believed we “need to reduce the distance between people”. This really had the feeling of a family home.
Second - homes and communities should help us find fulfilment in later life (and at every age). On a snowy day shortly before Christmas, I visited Bridge Meadows in Portland, USA. Bridge Meadows was a community of 75 foster children and adoptive parents who lived in houses next to affordable flats for ‘elders’. Elders offered 100 hours of support per quarter to the foster families, in return for affordable rent. Many of the elders I met spoke of the joy and fulfilment they found in offering their skills and care to these families. Children and parents also benefitted from the additional care: the children performed better at school and the foster placements were much more likely to be sustained for a long time.
Third - homes and communities should bring people of different ages together. In the UK, retirement complexes and care homes are typically separate from the surrounding community. Residents might go to a carol service with a local school once a year, but the links with the community could be more authentic and long-lasting. By contrast, one of the best restaurants I went to in Japan was located in a care home. I ate a delicious meal sitting alongside residents who were preparing vegetables, and a young couple who had travelled more than an hour to the restaurant because of its reputation for great food. AOI Care was the hub of the community - the shelves were stacked with personal coffee mugs belonging to people who lived locally, and one of the residents ran a sweet shop from the building, where local children stopped on their way home from school.
Since returning to the UK, I have run workshops for Bristol Ageing Better and spoken about my findings with professionals working for care homes and retirement housing developments. The insights from my travels have informed a major new programme at Food for Life, where I work. The programme involves bringing different generations of people together through growing, cooking and sharing food.
In the future, I hope to share ideas with housing associations and to connect with individuals who want to adopt the ideas I’ve discussed here. Please get in touch if you are interested in finding out more.
Top picture: Residents at AOI Care, Tokyo, prepare food for their renowned restaurant