Co-authoring the first HAPPI report proved to be a valuable experience for personal and professional reasons.
I’d left home by the time my paternal grandmother came to live with my parents, but it was clear from my regular visits that her advancing dementia was taking its toll on them as well on her. Reluctantly, they moved her to a nearby care home, but she never really knew where she was, or why.
About a decade later (early 1990s) and just a few months after my father retired, my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and given six months to live. Secondaries in her lungs and bones soon made walking very difficult. My parents had recently downsized to a new, smallish, two-storey, three-bedroom house near to a few shops and on a bus route. The garden was easier to manage, but there were steps to both the front and back doors, the downstairs WC was tiny (no chance of wheelchair access) and the prospect of installing a through-floor lift during the last few months of her life was too disruptive to contemplate. But, like most of us, she wanted to stay at home.
Defying the prognosis, she lived for three years on a hospital bed in the sitting room, using a bedpan with only the privacy of a curtain. My father became her full-time carer. His Parkinson’s symptoms stabilised during that time but advanced quickly after she died. He hated living alone and moved to sheltered housing for four relatively good years before needing residential care. Like his mother, he hated it; unlike his mother, he knew where he was, and why. Guilt was among the many emotions we experienced all over again.
The point of this unremarkable story is that it’s not unusual. Most of us have, or will have, a similar experience. We need to learn from them. I realised what Lifetime Homes was trying to get at, the limitations of specialised current housing options for older people, and the fear of ‘ending up in a home’ – a place that too often feels nothing like home.
HAPPI opened our eyes to more and better ways of living in later life. Despite being an architect, I hadn’t really understood that good, inclusive, non-institutional, contemporary design for older people was not only legitimate, it was a large part of the answer. For the first time, I saw age-friendly housing that my grandparents and parents would have liked, and that I too, could call home. I realised that while moving to a ‘better home’ might feel selfish, it often proves to be the reverse. It made us think about the huge age range that characterises us as ‘older people’. The entry age to specialised housing is generally 55; 12 years before we can claim our state pension and only two thirds of average UK life expectancy. The wide range of options we saw in Europe (as Patrick Devlin explains in his Housing LIN guest blog, HAPPI ten years on) began to make sense. It became obvious that while we don’t all want the same type of housing when we cross an arbitrary age threshold, better housing options could transform long periods of our lives.
Most of us will aim to stay in mainstream housing, within familiar, mixed neighbourhoods, for as long as we reasonably can. That may never change, but we are at least realising that aspiring to remain in the family home is a questionable ambition. Downsizing, particularly to a lift-served apartment with a balcony, has always made sense but is only just beginning to feel like a liberating step forward, rather than a humiliating step back. We are also becoming more aware about the debilitating impacts of loneliness. Until now, those of us who suddenly and unwittingly find ourselves living alone have had two options; moving in with family (often impractical and/or stressful) or moving to an institutional setting with people we don’t know, and with whom we may have only age and circumstances in common. Both can work, but for many, neither is ideal.
While researching for HAPPI, we found co-housing options that had transformed the lives of people who would otherwise have been lonely. We saw humane and enlightened facilities for people living with advanced dementia which offered contemporary, mainstream flats on the same site. Some were reserved for partners of those with dementia. It allows couples to spend as much time together as they wish, as partners, not as carer and patient.
The report kick-started a long over-due, national debate: how to live better as we live longer. Together with its four, themed sequels, it made us realise that institutionally and individually we’re not very grown up about ageing, and that diverse, well-designed appropriate housing has a huge role to play. Yes, it would be nice to be further along that journey, and for the politicians to have played their part, not least in sorting out social care, but we shouldn’t underestimate what we’ve learned in a decade and the extent to which that will benefit current and future generations of older people.
To view all the HAPPI reports, visit the Housing LIN’s dedicated ‘design hub’. And to read the reflections of Lord Best, Patrick Devlin and Matthew Barac about ten years of HAPPI, visit the Housing LIN’s blogs page.