Last month, I spent some time listening to the story of Sylvia (not her real name), who lives in a sheltered housing scheme run by a faith-based provider in one of our larger English cities. Sadly, Sylvia’s story is not, for the most part, a happy one. However, Sylvia was keen to share her experiences, and to suggest some ways in which sheltered housing providers could learn from her insights, and improve tenants’ and residents’ quality of life as a consequence.
The first part of this story is a challenging read, from a provider’s perspective. Sylvia originally chose the scheme a number of years ago, because she already lived in the local area, needed to move into more suitable housing for her later life, shared the same religious background as the sheltered housing provider, and knew a couple of the tenants who already lived there. It ‘seemed the most sensible place to go’. Sylvia has a number of visual, physical and cognitive impairments, and needs to live in an environment which is designed to be accessible for her needs.
Now, some years after moving in, Sylvia unfortunately feels that she has ‘nothing in common with most other people in the scheme, apart from my age, and my faith background’. Sylvia is not religious herself, and finds what she perceives as the ‘religious segregation’ of a faith-based housing scheme to be ‘isolating’. She also ‘does not want to play bingo’ or do most of the other activities which are laid on for ‘older people’ in the scheme. Sylvia has had a rich, varied life, with many challenges, responsibilities and achievements; she continues to have many interests and a great deal of knowledge to share. However, she said to me that ‘I have got so much to offer, but I don’t fit into any particular category’.
Sylvia also described feeling ‘disenfranchised’ by her experience of living in the scheme; she feels that ‘the management do not want to listen to what we [the tenants] have to say’. She has noticed that some fellow residents do also sometimes want to make their views heard, but quickly give up, because ‘there is no support for this and they feel there is no point’.
Sylvia also has a specific concern that the temperature in her home is always too high, and that, being unable to open any windows, she has no control over this aspect of her living environment. Sylvia feels that this issue has had a detrimental long-term impact on her health, over the years.
When asked for her advice for other sheltered housing providers about how to improve the quality of life of their tenants and residents, Sylvia offered the following suggestions:
- Listen to what tenants have to say – and ensure that we have real representation and a voice on the Board.
- Don’t pigeon hole older people – recognise that we are all individuals, have diverse interests and talents, and that these should be celebrated and nurtured. Not everyone wants to play bingo!
- Consider recruiting an independent person / volunteer to engage with and listen to tenants, and help advocate for / with them, to ensure that our voices are genuinely heard by management.
- Recognise the importance of basic issues like temperature, particularly for older people who might be spending a great deal of our time at home. If we feel that we have more control over key aspects of our day to day living environment, this could have a significant positive impact on our overall health and wellbeing.
- A practical design suggestion to tackle over-heating is for each flat to have double aspect windows positioned to allow a "cross draught". This allows air movement and helps to keep the temperature more comfortable!
Sylvia also expressed her view that for her as a non-religious person, a faith-based housing scheme is not the most suitable environment (even though she shares a religious heritage with the other tenants). In her experience, with little interaction or exchange taking place with the wider community, she fees that this adds to her feeling of isolation.
A broader angle on this particular, very subjective issue may be for all housing providers – faith based or not - to continually strive to ensure that the right balance is struck between the needs of those tenants who are happy to spend most of their time within the scheme itself, and those who yearn for more diversity (for example, in terms of age, culture, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and faith), and for more interaction with the outside world, and the wider community where they live.
I asked Sylvia what an ideal living environment would be for her, at this stage in her life. She envisaged a ‘small village environment’, with ‘family-like units’ and intergenerational living, with straightforward access to support, as well as to the practical and community amenities needed for daily life. ‘I would rather not to live just with other older people, but within more diverse groups, so that I have more chance of meeting people with whom I share interests, not just my age.’
As a final reflection, the Housing LIN champions the HAPPI principles, clearly focussed on the design of housing for people in later life. However, it is equally important that we design and operate policies, practices and procedures that ensure the full involvement of, and engagement with residents - offering more choice, greater voice. In this way, residents of older people’s housing will feel that they have control over their home environment and an opportunity to influence and shape their own community.
In the future, it is to be hoped that housing models will evolve to offer a wider range of options and models for people in later life, whatever their / our preferred lifestyle - recognising that ‘older people’ are a hugely diverse group and that none of us ‘fits into any particular category’.