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A roof over your head

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We’re running out of suitable houses for older people – is the solution to build upwards? asks financial commentator Annie Shaw 

Are purpose-built tower blocks for the elderly the answer to the housing crisis?Over the past 30 years the number of bungalows being built each year has fallen by more than 90%. According to government figures, just one in 50 new homes built in 2015 was a bungalow.

Yet at the same time as many as six in ten older people say they would like to downsize from larger properties, leaving millions in houses that are too big for their needs and costly to maintain. 

The reason for the dearth of retirement accommodation, say property market analysts, is the cost of land. A builder can make more profit from a two or three storey house than a bungalow that has the same sized ‘footprint’. 

But this level of demand and lack of available properties means what bungalows there are on the market can demand high prices. 

According to property site, the average cost of a bungalow in the well-heeled south east of England weighs in at over £414,000, compared to £343,500 for normal houses, while in retiresavvy’s native Yorkshire, a bungalow would cost over £188,000, versus the average house price of £159,800. (Prices accurate as of August 2016)

Is building upwards the answer? 

So, could the solution to creating accommodation for older people actually be the same as the solution found many years ago for slum clearance and housing families near centres of employment – to build upwards instead of outwards?

It sounds counter-intuitive, but there’s a lot to be said for it.

Yesterday I visited a friend in the city. She lives in a flat in the same 1960s tower block that she moved to not long after she married. She’s on her own now, since her husband died and her son moved out several years ago to go to university, and he now lives with his own family in a different town.

The flat was pretty grim. The concrete walkways looked threatening, and although the lift was working when I visited I imagined it would be difficult to lug stuff up the bleak staircase if ever the elevator was out of action.

Tower blocks for the elderly? 

Jeannie, my friend, says she would like to move. She’s in her seventies now and starting to get a bit achy with arthritis. She says she would like a little retirement bungalow in the country or by the sea, but she wonders how she would manage on her own if ever she couldn’t manage her own shopping, or if the bus service wasn’t good and she had to get to the doctor.

Here in the city she has all she needs, including her friends, and her son can visit regularly. She doesn’t really want to move, but then she doesn’t like to go out much either, because gangs of youths hang around the lifts. 

The young mothers leave their children’s buggies outside their doors on the walkway, making it hard to get by sometimes, and she is always worried about the lifts breaking down – often through vandalism.

Then I got to thinking about Jeannie’s tower block. Some of the ritziest and most desirable property is high rise, with the highest floors commanding the highest prices. 

What a contrast with Jeannie’s flat.

Then I thought: how good would it be to create a tower block just for older people? It goes against all the current thinking of apartments and bungalows set in private lawns. But low-rise housing is expensive because of the land cost, meaning developments are often situated out of town. 

How much better would it be for older people to remain in the city, near their friends and old haunts, but in safe and pleasant accommodation?

A high rise utopia 

A flat in a tower block ticks all the accessibility boxes, too – on a single level with no stairs. Of course, maintenance for the lifts would need to be ensured - but with dedicated housing for older people, the general gripe about communal lifts being blighted by anti-social behaviour should disappear. 

Lower floors of a dedicated tower block might provide a communal social area – perhaps even a laundry, a space where a hairdresser could operate or visit, a doctor’s surgery or consulting room. 

Shopping – perhaps bought online - and mail could be dropped off easily to a central reception area for collection by residents or, for the more infirm, for delivery to individual flats by a resident warden. 

A resident warden could also, as in other sheltered accommodation, keep an eye on residents and raise the alarm or call the emergency services if needed.

A number of hotel-style rooms could be made available for visiting relatives – as sometimes happens on student campuses, so residents need not worry about retaining a spare room for visitors.

The grounds of the building, usually concreted around a typical council tower block, or covered in sparse grass with signs saying No Ball Games, could be landscaped. If is was walled and gated it could be made secure and a place to enjoy the fresh air for those who wanted it.

A personal experience 

My mother, who is 94, has steadfastly refused to leave her little two-up, two-down house. She struggles with the stairs – and has recently had a fall, cracking her shoulder blade, because she can’t grip the banister rail and can’t manage her stick on the steps. She would be much better living all on one level. 

She says she would hate a flat “up above the world so high”, as she describes it. But, ironically, now confined to her chair for much of the time, she takes pleasure in looking up at the passing clouds and the birds.

She frets about the garden, which although tiny is becoming unkempt, and costly to maintain if she employs a gardener. When things go wrong, such as light bulbs needing changing, she can’t manage to fix them herself and has to wait for someone to visit. 

How much easier it would be if she could get someone on site to take care of these things if she pressed an intercom button or picked up a phone.

She won’t move house now, and I just hope that she doesn’t have a fatal fall on the stairs, which are unsuitable for a stair lift. But I do wonder if she had moved 15 or 20 years ago she might have had a better quality of later life in physically safer surroundings within a secure community.

I don’t know if tower blocks for older communities exist, but if they do I hope that someone points one out to Jeannie.

This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.

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I lived on the 18th floor of a tower block for 5 years and loved it. There were many older people in the block and for most people it provided security and easy access. There were occasional problems with the lifts but , with two lifts in place , I can only remember one point where both were out of order. Well maintained high flats are ideal for most older people , although I would stay well away from any with only one lift. However the services charges were high due to the window cleaning and the maintenance cost of the lifts. Most people could get the smaller type mobile scooters into the lifts and up to their own floors. You were not supposed to leave the scooters on the landing but everyone did and it was accepted practise. Good place to live although I have to admit my wife never really liked it.

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