Communicating about older peoples housing choices is not a luxury item: our starting point for change

Jessamy's logo 112
Jessamy Hayes
Programme Manager, Independent Living and Supported Living, Norfolk County Council

Baptisms of fire take many forms; a series of focus groups with Norfolk residents in early 2020 was mine. We believed simply promoting a scheme would improve its profile and ensure a healthy waitlist for new housing schemes. We quickly found out we would have to go much deeper than promotion, and it would be critical to the success of our housing programme.

We all recognise the importance of good quality specialist housing in keeping people independent and well, ensuring people remain part of their communities even as their needs and situations change. In 2019, to support the delivery our Position Statement, ‘Developing extra care housing in Norfolk (opens new window)’, Norfolk County Council set up a £30m capital programme to support Registered Social Landlords with the viability of affordable developments. 

Anticipating the ambitious change both in scale and provision, part of the programme would be dedicated to smoothing our back-office processes and promoting new schemes. To get us started, we wanted to test the water in Norfolk to see just where we were.

Going on this journey changed the scope and breadth of the challenge and opportunity we had thought of as simply “promote”. Our local litmus test confirmed a familiar theme already appearing across literature on extra care – confusion:

  • No one outside our ‘expert’ bubbles understood the term extra care
  • The term extra care had an immediate, undesirable association with ‘care home’ and ‘end of life’
  • The crowded basket of names for housing types was even more confusing
  • There was some familiarity found either talking about older sheltered housing or some unaffordable luxury developments
  • And, not to be left out, the council’s own information and processes were not adding any clarity

The research also pulled out themes about how people saw themselves and the impact this has on how we should think about communicating. The language we use, how we use it and who is using it must fundamentally change to connect with an audience who may be getting older but are not giving up on enjoying life. It was not lost on us we are about to have a generation of octogenarians who grew up on rock and roll, miniskirts, and bright acid colours. 

We were constantly challenged that whilst people age, their hobbies and interests remain. No one sees themselves as old; just because their age has changed, they still have aspirations and goals. People valued being spoken to by a peer and valued and trusted someone’s experience. In one or two groups, David Attenborough came out as a top trusted voice. 

There were internal challenges too.  Our use of institutional language betrayed the legacy of systems thinking with “beds”, “placements” and “facilities” still being used frequently by well-intentioned operational staff.  

We needed to change our approach. We had a small budget, an aspiration and a recognition that real change would take time and investment in that time.

What have we learnt from the real experts?  

  • Use language that is aspirational and reflects how people see themselves
  • Have a name that appeals as well as conveys what it does: Independent Living as opposed to extra care
  • Clearly distinguish the offer of ‘Independent Living’ from sheltered housing and care homes
  • Be clear about the benefits but remember technical benefits 'sexy' to an organisation do not translate to or inspire someone considering moving home
  • Focus messages on people being able to live their lives and remain in control, with peace of mind
  • Being able to get on with your life in a friendly community was a stronger message than “reduce your social isolation”
  • Messages are best delivered through “peers” and not the local authority being spoken with rather than at
  • Educate the wider public about all housing options, not shying away from the other names that exist but helping to navigate the differences

To do this successfully we would need a county wide education and marketing campaign with feedback loops built in to ensure we learn from and build on our approach. So far we have:

  • Created resources for staff to guide conversations
  • Streamlined and updated essential backoffice functions
  • Committed to a comprehensive education campaign covering TV, radio and print
  • Commissioned videos informed by direct feedback from older people in Norfolk
  • Targeted a demographic of modest means but aware the broader themes have relevance for all

We know we are only at the start of a long journey. True success will come from a long-term approach; people don’t decide to move overnight after all. To match aspirations and needs, we still must build housing that people want to move into but recognise we need to do more than just build to truly succeed in helping people to make changes about where they live as their needs change. Later life is not an afterthought, and neither should communicating about it be.  

Jessamy took part in a roundtable discussion last month at the CIH annual conference hosted by Lowell Later Living and Motionspot, supported by the Housing LIN, where she drew attention how the use of language for extra care appears to be aimed more at professionals rather than adequately reflecting older consumer preferences or aspirations

Credit to Jessamy’s colleagues: Hannah Pickering, Project Manager and Kirsty Storr, Principal Marketing Manager. For more information on independent living, please watch these videos (opens new window) hosted by Norfolk County Council.

With further interest on marketing in extra care housing please visit the Housing LIN dedicated webpage here.  

And for more information on housing choices for older adult, please also visit the Housing LIN’s dedicated Housing for Older People webpages. These provide a comprehensive selection of resources and different types of designated housing for older people, including sheltered/retirement housing, almshouses, intergenerational housing, cohousing and downsizing.


Posted on by Paula Broadbent

Excellent blog Jessamy your observations during the engagement reflects that published by myself in 2016 when I added to the same work at NYCC by reaching out to home owners to support the business case for developing life long homes. Now MD of Lovell Later Living driven by delivering to the aspirations of people in later life. Your contribution to the round table we hosted at CIH was invaluable in supporting the call for challenging the status quo. People deserve much better and we all have a responsibility to do the right thing, so people can live independently in the Right home for them.

Add your comment

Leave this field empty