Whatever the government’s policy development process is, it is clear from COVID that our country’s approach to social care must change.
The Covid inquiry may take years but, as with Grenfell, the evidence will be powerful. Unless it wants to lose the next election, the government will have to act. As Jeremy Hunt said, it really is a do-or-die moment for the Conservatives.
Hunt argues that, without change, “the system will carry on doing what it always has done”. That is: export its most vulnerable patients back into NHS hospitals. The danger here is that the solution focuses on safety nets and high-acuity care. We say: think harder about how to break the correlation between old age and vulnerability, because here lies one of the biggest prizes.
This is achievable if we learn full lessons of the Covid crisis. The first is that, outside care homes, there were specialist residential options for older people that recorded much lower death rates. Among housing-with-care operators, 75% reported Covid infection rates of less than 1% in the first six months of the crisis. Safe residential spaces for older people do exist in a pandemic.
The second lesson is that independent homes, as part of communities where care is available, offer huge mental health benefits.
Residents were not stuck in lockdown at home or locked in a care home for months on end. They benefited from regular human contact and the ability to see relatives when the lockdown measures were eased. Indeed, a recent study found that 87% of retirement community residents ‘never or hardly ever’ felt lonely.
There is a wider societal benefit to be gained if more housing with care is available
What does this tell us about the future we should aspire to? Well, the age range of 75 to 85 is a critical period for maintaining good health.
As an organisation, our purpose is to preserve the wellbeing of residents of this age for as long as possible. Some positive news is that more than half of over-70s feel closer to their community now than before the pandemic. We see the strong benefits of people feeling valued and connected long into their 80s, and we believe there is a wider societal benefit to be gained if more housing with care is available.
Too many people still have a negative view of housing with care – the “ghettoisation of old age” offering a “controlled and predictable environment”, as one blogger described our sector. The reality in the UK is very different, but we need to do better at explaining that. It’s clear human connections support physical and mental health. It’s well established that loneliness leads to cognitive decline. But the stigma attached to moving out of the family home is still there and we must pour more energy into tackling it.
One way is to change the game in terms of location, design and carbon footprint. In urban locations, our new villages will be fully integrated with local communities, encouraging as much interaction between local generations as possible.
The sector has made mistakes in the past – we must acknowledge that. But we can play a key role in keeping our older population healthier for longer. We can help weaken the link between old age and hospitalisations. Policymakers should look seriously at the contribution our sector can make as they shape a new social contract. For our part as developers and operators, we must seize this moment and work together to change perceptions of the industry forever.
The prize is worth fighting for: happier, heathier, more connected communities for everyone.
Written by Will Bax, chief executive of Retirement Villages Group, and published by Property Week.