New communities keep elders at the heart of society

Around 3.8 million older people live alone in the UK and those that live in special residential communities are often segregated from mainstream society. But times are changing

According to the European Commission, the number of people in the EU aged 80 and above is expected to increase by 170% by 2050.

This emerging demographic is challenging us to come up with new ideas for our years in later life. And we are starting to see a growing number of visionary schemes which offer seniors the opportunity to lead vibrant lives, well integrated with mainstream society.

In December 2012, the Dartington Hall Trust, based near Totnes in Devon, will submit its first planning application for Abundant Life – a residential older people’s community that would be very much a part of the wider community. The application for the project, which is seeking several million pounds’ investment, includes plans for 170 apartments, extensive communal spaces, a children’s nursery, a gym, an outdoor piazza and restaurant, as well as activity and craft rooms and a specialist care dementia unit.

The Trust, which focuses on social justice, is building solid links with the local community and exploring new ways to promote activities with people of all ages. There will be business space and easy access to the arts at Abundant Life, as well as land for residents to grow their own produce. Abundant Life will also have good transport links and on-site facilities available to non-residents. At the moment, suggested costs are around £225,000 for a two-bedroom apartment, or around £100 a week to rent.

“We talked to a lot of people locally and to our own staff about what they saw were the really big issues coming up in the years ahead,” explained Celia Atherton, director of social justice at Dartington Hall Trust. “The one issue that always came up at the top of the pile was how we were going to make sure that older people had the kind of lives that they were entitled to after a lifetime of work.”

Those steering the project have been taking advice from organisations which include the ExtraCare Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also has a strong focus on social justice and, in 1998, set up its own housing trust – Hartrigg Oaks in York – as the UK’s first continuing care retirement community.

“We are seeing a number of schemes which offer seniors the opportunity to lead vibrant lives, well integrated with mainstream society”

Hartrigg residents, who are aged 60 upwards, are very much involved in their local community, from manning the information desk at York Minster cathedral and acting as tour guides to being active members of local sports and community groups. There are pooled funds at Hartrigg, so that costs are shared for any extra care needed.

There are good links with local schools to provide integration across generations and residents pass their experience on to young people in the village. For example, students learning languages are invited to take part in French and German Christmas carol tea parties hosted by fluent Hartrigg residents. The Hartrigg Oaks initiative sparked further Joseph Rowntree housing communities in Hartlepool and Scarborough in 2008.

There are several other similar visionary projects either being considered or already in place around the UK.

In North Monmouthshire, farm owner Ben Jones plans to set up an integrated community to provide a settlement of housing and extra care apartments solely for senior residents. There will be special provision for those with dementia. The Grove Community looks likely to be one of the biggest progressive communities for older people in the UK, with several hundred differently sized properties available, starting at £82,000 for a one-person apartment.

Jones is working with a housing association to ensure that at least half of the properties, both rented and bought, fall into the ‘affordable homes’ bracket.

Jones believes that such a facility would not only be a groundbreaking step towards coping with the trend of an ageing population, but also that the recognition of such provision is central to the needs of a civilised and caring society. The farm owner hopes to provide a swimming pool, wellbeing centre, restaurant, shop and medical centre at the Grove Community.

A number of traditional residential communities for elders also provide these facilities. However, the Grove Community’s main point of difference would be the farmyard, which it hopes will become the focal point for community life. There will also be a communal meeting hall offering courses, study and opportunities for conversation.

Earlier this year actress Judi Dench, 77, spoke out about the way the elderly are treated: “We’re not good at dealing with old age in this country. We shove people in a room and leave them sitting round a television. The way the elderly are treated, and in some cases warehoused and medicated rather than nurtured and listened to, is distressing.”

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