Time to Prioritise Retirement Living

History will judge how effectively the UK Government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether we think lockdown was imposed too slowly, or too incompetently – it is clear that we will be arguing about this for many years to come.

What is beyond dispute, is that the virus has wreaked havoc in our care homes. That almost half of the 60,000 excess deaths recorded after March 20th were in care homes, is a national tragedy of historic scale.

Yes, the disease affects the elderly more severely, and care homes often involve intimate interactions, of staff and residents, but surely this raises important questions about other forms of senior living housing and their management? In particular are there models of housing that have fared better in coping with this unprecedented crisis?

Thankfully, initial evidence is that market leading models of senior living have responded exceptionally well to the pandemic. With 20,000 customers, mainly in their 80s, and across 441 retirement communities, McCarthy & Stone faced a huge challenge.  They paused development to focus on their residents; tackled the need for PPE and supported their most vulnerable residents by delivering home meals, shopping and crucial medical supplies. The outcome was an impact half the rate of over-65s in the wider population, and a seventh of the over 85s.

This reflects what we already knew. That retirement communities, where every resident has their own front door and the right degree of on-site help and assistance, has a positive impact on the lives of older people. It also makes social distancing more practical and residents are generally in better health than care home residents.

Now is the time to prioritise the provision of retirement communities. Investors such as Legal & General are joining the established players and seeking to expand the housing-with-care sector to levels seen internationally. They have supported a call by Arco (the Associated Retirement Community Operators), for specific planning requirements for older people and retirement communities. Arco believes that uncertainty and a lack of regulation “could cost two years’ growth in the fastest growing part of the UK social care sector”.  Surely a quick win for anticipated planning reforms.

As McCarthy & Stone have proposed, specific stamp duty reforms for retirees downsizing, would make a real difference to unblocking housing chains and boost the wider housing market. Similarly, measures to promote independent retirement living could be crucial to the survival of some struggling high streets in smaller communities across the country.

It is perhaps too early to rush to judgement on the wider lessons of the pandemic. But clearly with our ageing population, and the devastating impact the crisis has had on social care and wider public services, a smart Government would listen and respond

This article first appeared in Housebuilder Magazine’s July/August edition. You can view it here.