What do older people want from life when they’re ‘older’?
This was the question that Joan Bakewell OBE set out to answer for us when she spoke at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Eastern Region Conference this week.
Joan was the final speaker of the 3 day conference that had seen topics from ASB to Welfare Reform considered and discussed by over 300 housing professionals from the region and beyond.
It was clear from her research that one of the most important things for people when they reached ‘that certain age’ was a place of their own over which they could have total control to put up pictures and to have ‘stuff’ that retained memories of loved ones, or earlier days all over their place. Too often, she said, are older people being asked to enter retirement homes or schemes that limit the pictures one can have on the walls, or worse limit the memories of older people just to save on space.
This was one of the main reasons that she felt older people hate to move – not for the trouble; indeed many landlords will provide a large amount of help to alleviate the trouble. They’ll pack for you, load the vans and even unpack for you if you want. But what they won’t do usually is give you enough space for all your stuff!
Gardens are important too she thinks – whether their own gardens or communal – spaces that are facing the right way, yet sheltered to enable a quiet afternoon spent sitting in the sun reading a book or just thinking. They give the older person a place to relax and just be without them having to worry they’re in someone’s way.
Another, and obvious benefit of gardens is that older people tend to like having growing things around them – trees, flowers, even vegetables – these are all affirmations of life, and older people need them as they get towards the end of their own lives as they give a sense of continuity that older people feel they need. Having their own space to grow something is even better and window boxes are a favourite (they don’t need to bend down too much!)
Joan was very clear on the need for older people to have access to local amenities, shops, post office, Doctors and library all hit the top of the list of what’s needed close by – within walking distance preferably – but not too close. Older people recognise the need to be active and so a daily walk to collect their paper, a weekly trip to the library to change their book or CD or indeed DVD these days are all ways of them keeping active, and involved in the local community.
For Joan, one of the more promising developments of recent years has been recognition of most of the above lines of reasoning; schemes are becoming more user friendly while retaining the safety and security that older people also need. Amenities are part of the project from the start and flats, apartments and houses are built with simple adaptations already in place and future possible needs designed in – wider doorways, plugs halfway up a wall and so on. Joan has visited one such scheme at Oscott Village and is impressed. Facilities in the retirement village include medical, shopping, community centres and parks, all within easy reach of the 250 homes there.
However, she is also very clear that what we don’t want to do is create older people ghettos. Older people need to be around younger people too, and while building a scheme next to a junior school isn’t a good idea getting older people involved in their community is. Intergenerational events such as ‘Adopt a Granny’ or even just ‘coffee & squash mornings’ with local schools are always well attended – the old love the young and “the relationship between the very old and the very young is incredibly enriching and fruitful”, she says.
Mixed communities are important – but they need to be a choice that older people make for themselves, some will relish the idea, others won’t and it’s important that new schemes are built that reflect the options available.
Joan’s final subject was about isolation. Older people today are becoming more and more isolated because life seems to move so much faster than it did before. We’re busier, with more going on to distract us, and we live further apart than we used to, “We live in an aggressively active society now but if you’ve little money, or have mobility problems it’s easy to slip into isolation”.
The signs are easy to spot: people will stop looking after themselves, not washing each day like they used to; letting the house get dusty and dirty; or ‘closing’ parts of the house down – living in just one or two rooms on the ground floor. These signs are obvious when you’re looking for them and Joan wants us all to be on the watch for them because it’s easy to make a huge difference to someone’s life!
Photos of Joan Bakewell by Philip Mynott Photographer http//:www.philmynottphoto.co.uk
One of the sessions I attended at the Chartered Institute of Housing Conference in Manchester last week was the ‘Sacred Cow’ session on the continuance of ALMOs – obviously I had a slight bias as the Chair of an ALMO going through a Housing Services Review but was interested in what others might have say on the subject.
There were quite a few other ALMOs represented but there were attendees who were obviously from the ‘other side of the fence’, Council Officers, Lead members or representatives from other organisations – ARCH being the most vocal on the day.
I have to say right from the start that I felt the question was loaded in any case – I don’t think that ALMOs do have a right to exist in any circumstances, but where this is correct for the local authority, the ALMO and most importantly the tenants it is right that ALMOs should be enabled to continue.
In general the session was in favour of ALMOs continuing. Points were made about value for money – and it’s absolutely right that an ALMO, like any other organisation should review the services it offers and carries out research into cost/benefit and value for money on a regular basis. It also became clear that ALMOs need to diversify and create an income stream for themselves – either by offering other services to their Council or functions they already carry out to other organisations, but interestingly attendees didn’t think that ALMOs should be trying to break into the Private Rented Sector. I think that’s a mistake, it’s an area that ALMOs could really make a difference but as I said before it’s very much a local decision.
In a session with an emotive title like the one I above I did expect there to be one or two people who were going to take a counter view to that of most ALMOs, but the vehemence of the two guys from ARCH (Association of Retained Council Housing) really surprised me. I’ve spoken to residents of both guy’s local authorities and they speak really well of their respective housing departments (no, I won’t name them). Clearly in those areas the views of residents really do matter – they are involved and informed and with the authority have quite a say on driving performance.
That is great, but it’s far from the case in every local authority and one thing ALMOs get very good at very quickly is involving tenants at every level of their organisations.
A point made early in the session was that the tenants served by ALMOs have all decided, one way or another, to remain council tenants and as such you’d expect that ARCH and the ALMO movement would have a lot in common – sadly, if the two guys there were representative of the ARCH membership that’s not the case.
This could be a problem in the future – Council housing could very easily become a thing of the past if the ideas of the conservative-leaning thinktanks are taken to the logical conclusion. If, (when) that happens we will all need to be working together and division now will only serve the ‘other side’.
I look forward to the day that ARCH and ALMOs can stand on the same platform saying the same things about involving tenants for better services, and most of all keeping and increasing the supply of council owned housing up and down the land!
ALMOs in general are good for the tenants they serve and good for their host council too, but like everything else they must evolve and justify the ‘extra’ expense of having one. I don’t think that many will have a problem justifying that – as long as the question is asked fairly and transparently. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case of late and some really good ALMOs have been taken back in-house in the name of saving money without any real consultation with the tenants who were receiving the service from them.
Long may they continue!
Note: For those who don’t know what an ALMO is – They’re an Arms Length Management Organisation wholly owned by a local authority to deliver a particular service, in this case housing management, to the council’s tenants. While the concept has been around quite a while, the oldest housing ALMOs are only about 10 years old.
The last labour Government encouraged them as an alternative to stock transfer to enable investment (in the form of Govt loans) in the stock – some of which had become badly maintained due to housing finance subsidy shortfalls. Between 2002 and 2009 over £4.6billion of improvements had been delivered to more than 250,000 homes in England with 58 Audit Commission inspections resulting in 21 organisations gaining 3 stars and 37, 2 stars under the previous regulatory regime.
For more information on the work ALMOs do check out the National Federation of ALMOs website
With (depending on your point of view) neat or cruel irony the number of part-time employees hit a record high within hours of them being identified as a major target for a second round of welfare reform.
Official figures published on Wednesday morning confirmed that unemployment fell by 45,000 to 2.63 million people and the number of people in work rose by 105,000.
Grant Shapps has predictably had a go but it’s hard to see the housebuilding figures out today as anything other than awful.
The housing minister tweeted that housing starts in 2011 were up 29 per cent on 2009. Curiously, though, he did not mention the figures that had just been published for the first quarter of 2012.
Read the rest of this post on my blog for Inside Housing.