Older Londoners are diverse in their identities, cultures, tastes and aspirations. They do not all want the same type of home, but there are consistent themes: enough room inside, green space outside, access to services and shops. Some of this can be regulated – for example through space standards – but many aspects of quality homes are about good design rather than the application of rules.
Space and bedrooms
London needs to build 66,000 new homes each year by 2030 to meet its needs, but quantity should not come at the expense of quality. Older Londoners require room for their evolving needs, new customs, and a lifetime of possessions and relationships. The Housing our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation (HAPPI) design framework emphasises the need for space as people get older and become more likely to spend time indoors. 10 In particular, having enough space inside makes it possible to exercise without leaving the home, perhaps by trying an online class.
The older Londoners we interviewed emphasised how the COVID-19 pandemic had made extra space more important for those unable to leave their homes. Balconies, gardens and private bedrooms or workspaces became a source of relief. Those living alone with extra space often told us that they did not want to give up bedrooms that could be used by visiting children or other family guests. These can additionally be useful for live-in carers, either paid or informal.
“When you’re older and live alone you don’t want a home you can’t look after.”
Too much space or the wrong kind of space can also be a problem. Some of the people we spoke to told us that conditions such as arthritis could make it difficult to look after their homes, especially when they are spread across different floors with stairs. For older Londoners with low incomes, and those living in older and poorly insulated homes, the likelihood of fuel poverty and health risks increases. Disrepair and poor heating – two symptoms of a non-decent home – can worsen health or force people to move.
Yet moving is rarely easy, for both practical and emotional reasons. Homes are not just physical structures and storage spaces. For older people in particular, they hold memories and create a link to past or present relationships. Single interviewees, for example, told us that they didn’t want to leave homes they had shared with deceased partners or children who had since moved away.
The wider environment: active travel and safe streets
The right location is just as important as the right home. To be effective in meeting older people’s needs, housing must be integrated into their community. Strategic planning for older people’s housing also needs to take public realm, transport, and other services into account. An inclusive and well-designed built environment allows older Londoners to lead healthy, independent and creative lives outside their homes. For example, having pavements with dropped kerbs, traffic lights with phases long enough for slower walkers to cross, and benches to rest on the way can make the difference between being able to get to a shop or social group and being stuck at home. Clean, accessible public toilets are also essential for many older people to feel confident making journeys outside the home. Of course, these design elements benefit other groups as well: inclusive design is good for everyone.
Proximity to supermarkets, hospitals, GP practices and other essential services means that older people can avoid long, often tiring journeys. Many older people place particularly high value on interesting and lively high streets, and Centre for London is exploring this area in more detail through our research on Community Town Centres.
When people live at a distance from these crucial amenities, affordable and quality public transport links are especially important. Initiatives such as the Freedom Pass and 60+ Oyster card, which provide free travel on buses, trams and trains, are a great help to many older people living on low incomes. Yet London still has a long way to go to ensure that these transport links are as accessible as they are affordable. One interviewee stated that though they lived close to the High Barnet Underground station, they had trouble getting to and from the station as it was located at the bottom of a hill. Overground and Tube stations without lifts, step-free access or user-friendly ticket machines are more common – and fixable – barriers to accessibility. The transport network has made progress on accessibility in recent years, but it is still too slow for many older people.
Not all safety can be improved with physical interventions. One Londoner told us that the fear of prejudice against herself and her wife influenced their choice of location when looking for a new home. A majority of interviewees brought up the anxiety associated with navigating hazardous neighbourhoods and streets designed for cars rather than people. Wider pavements, benches, better lighting and cleaner streets can increase older people’s confidence in moving around their area. Likewise, they create space for the encounters and interactions that help people feel included and secure in their community. An inclusive and accessible environment must also offer older people safety and security.
Choice of location – close to home, or newer and greener?
When their current home becomes inadequate for their needs, older people – or at least those who can afford to choose – must decide whether to stay local or move elsewhere. This is rarely a straightforward decision. Many interviewees said they were reluctant to search for a new home in a new location because they wanted to retain support networks that had taken years to establish.
Nonetheless, some people will choose to move. Congestion, busy streets and air pollution in the more urbanised areas all make open and greener spaces more attractive. One interviewee who had moved to an outer London borough told us that at first, they had been wary of leaving their more central location. However, one of the key advantages of their new area was its proximity to open green spaces. Indeed, many people we spoke to highlighted the value of living within walking distance of woods or fields, while still having access to good transport links that could easily take them into central London. Outer boroughs also have lower population churn rates, enabling greater security as well as the opportunity for more stable and long-lasting community ties among neighbours.
“I had good neighbours where I used to live, but they were ever-changing and always very busy – as is the case in London. I decided to move somewhere I could have a supportive and stronger sense of community.”
Although outer London has more green space overall, it is still plentiful in parts of inner London. Planning for older people’s housing should aim to make this open space accessible – both by choosing locations with this in mind, and by ensuring that routes to such spaces are also accessible and safe.
Loneliness and participation
Older Londoners contribute £6.3 billion annually to London’s economy through paid work, volunteering, being carers and looking after grandchildren. 11 As people live and work longer, they are able to make significant economic and social contributions that allow the city to thrive.
Many of the Londoners we spoke with participated in local activities and said that they valued feeling like part of the community. Those involved in local political organisations also had access to information and contacts that allowed them to have a say in shaping their neighbourhoods.
Regrettably, despite its place as a culturally diverse and global city, London is ranked amongst the loneliest cities in the world. 12 Analysis by Age UK estimated that in 2018, 198,000 older people in London could go for a month without meeting up with a friend.[footnote]Age UK (2018). 198,000 older Londoners haven’t met up with a friend in a month. Retrieved from: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/london/about-us/news/articles/2018/122/198000-older-londoners-havent-met-up-with-a-friend-in-amonth/[/footnote] This number will have increased due to coronavirus lockdowns, as older Londoners are particularly likely to have been shielding – and because some will have found it harder to connect with family and friends online.
Modern housing developments pay particular attention to placemaking, and often aim to provide a range of activities for residents that help them make new contacts or friends. For example, they might encourage chatting by providing a place to sit down and get a hot drink – or by having flexible, inviting rooms which can be used for group exercise, art or dance classes.
Given the diversity of London’s population, we should particularly consider the intersectional barriers to participation that older people may face. The GLA’s recent Survey of Londoners highlighted that loneliness and social isolation are more common amongst Londoners facing social disadvantage or exclusion. 14 While informal volunteering among older Londoners remains high, those without qualifications or lacking proficiency in English are less likely to volunteer, and may be missing out on the mental health and social benefits of doing so.