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Why home adaptations should be integral to every provider’s strategy

Britain’s ageing population is growing, and so is the demand for safer, more accessible housing. Laura Wood, marketing director for Invisible Creations®, explains why all housing providers should consider putting home adaptations at the heart of their strategy.

The ageing population is changing the demand for housing, and there’s no doubt that more adaptable and specialised housing is needed to meet evolving needs.

The scary reality we’re facing right now, and if action isn’t taken will only get worse, is that almost four million homes in England are endangering the health of the people who live there; more than half of these are lived in by someone aged 55 or over.

An ageing society presents social landlords with considerable challenges, and action is urgently needed to invest in innovative and long-term solutions to future-proof businesses and properties.

Safe, accessible housing has the power to maintain and even improve health and wellbeing, and social connections, as people grow older. By recognising the critical link between health and housing and creating innovative solutions to adapt homes to meet changing needs we have the chance to dramatically improve people’s quality of life.

Yet, we’re living in a society where millions of people live in homes that are damaging their health and wellbeing and many are unable to make the changes needed to make their homes warm and safe due to a lack of money, time, support and/or advice.

A recent Foundations report – ‘Housing Associations and Home Adaptations: Finding Ways to Say Yes’ – found that over half (54%) of housing association tenants have a long-term illness or disability, and almost a fifth (18%) of new lettings are to households with specific disability needs. The majority of social housing is for general needs which was not designed to be inclusive, and much of the specialist stock is now quite old. This means that an increasing number of homes need modifying to meet people’s needs.

Although there is a lot of good practice and effective partnership working, in most associations home adaptations are seen as a minor operational issue. There are few strategic plans to make the existing housing stock work effectively for the considerable numbers of disabled and older tenants but a much more widespread, focused strategic approach is definitely needed.

The accessibility and inclusivity of the existing stock is vital. It creates life chances for people of all ages including families with disabled children, people of working age and those in later life. It helps people keep their dignity and confidence, prevents falls, improves mental health, reduces demands on carers and care services, and keeps people living independently in their community.

One million homes without adaptations

Across the country, one million homes are lived in by someone who requires an adaptation but is going without; a third of these people are aged 55 and over.

Without the means to adapt their homes to their needs as they age, people may find their independence and quality of life seriously, and avoidably, limited.

Housing associations current delivery model for adaptations is built around a reactive approach that installs unattractive, clinical and stigmatising home adaptations after someone has fallen or been in hospital.

There is a growing body of evidence to show that the decision to modify a home, or move to more suitable accommodation, is better if it happens earlier, rather than when an individual is at ‘crisis’ point following a fall, injury, or return from hospital, or if care breaks down. There is a corresponding negative impact if there are delays in the process, or if someone does not get help and remains living in an inappropriate home for an extended period.

The vast majority of us live in mainstream housing; but with fewer than one in 10 homes meeting the basic standard of accessibility, it is clear that our housing is not suitable for us as we age. While specialised housing – such as sheltered accommodation or retirement villages – is one part of the solution, what we really need as we go through the age shift is more accessible housing which we can live in at all ages, and which we can grow older in.

More than 90% of older people live in mainstream housing and intend to stay there. Yet, Britain has the oldest housing stock in Europe. As well as being in poor condition, the vast majority of these homes are inaccessible, with only 7% of homes having all four features that make them accessible to most people.

More efficient housing stock

Too often, adaptations are removed at further expense when the next tenant does not want them, due to their clinical and stigmatising appearance. It is incumbent upon the housing sector, and in consequence the economy, to make better use of its existing housing stock by adopting a strategic approach to adaptations that provides products that are disassociated with age and vulnerability and instead promote independence, choice and dignity.

These products should also be installed into homes sooner, and prevent the need to be removed once a tenant leaves the property.

Housing associations are regularly removing home adaptations because of poor design and limited demand for the products that currently exist. They are also losing tenants or struggling to let void properties because homes do not meet accessibility needs and consequently, this can have a negative impact on income and expenditure.

The need for home adaptations is set to increase with a rapidly ageing population and a better delivery model will need to be implemented to ensure efficiencies in cost, resource and service delivery.

The profile of social housing tenants will grow more elderly in line with national trends and the demand for accessible housing will, as a consequence, increase substantially for the foreseeable future. Social tenants are more likely to suffer from a disability, be less financially secure and be socially isolated. In addition, people don’t proactively plan for the future and only take action when circumstances force them to. This makes the task of planning ahead even more urgent.

Spending on adapting housing will have to rise to meet these needs and housing associations will need to adopt a more strategic and preventative approach to their adaptations to continue to meet the needs of their tenants in the future.

For housing associations, adapting stock to assist the ageing population live more independently for longer, not only increases the usability of the home environment for tenants, but it also provides a significant business benefit. By making stock more accessible, it allows tenants to remain living in properties for longer, which in turn increases tenancy sustainment and reduces empty properties.

It also makes stock more marketable, as there is a distinct lack of affordable and accessible housing across the UK, so if a housing association adapts more homes to meet accessibility standards, they are likely to attract a higher and wider interest in people renting their homes.

With 80% of the homes that people will be living in by 2050 already built, the condition and accessibility of existing housing is critical in determining quality of life for people of all ages.

Beautiful, accessible design

Every design decision we make has the potential to include or exclude customers. The current model of home adaptations is built around function and need, rather than centred on what people actually want and desire.

This presents people with a range of products that, although functional, are clinical, unattractive and stigmatising – a symbol of lost independence, disability, old age, and vulnerability. Products that exclude customers and have so much negative stigma attached to them that people would rather make dangerous decisions that damage their health than get them installed. The cheap rails installed by health and social care as temporary measures have become universal without much thought going into their appropriateness.

Older and disabled people have been poorly served to date with products and services often disempowering, clinical, and stigmatising. This had led to limited demand for products and services that do exist.

It is also important to recognise that every adaptation is an advertisement. If it is unattractive, more people will wait until they get to crisis point before coming forward to get the help they need, adding to costs for health and care, leading to poorer outcomes for tenants and potentially much higher adaptation costs or a need to move home.

Poor design can also have a serious detrimental impact. A report on doorstep crime showed that 43% of victims had a handrail, grab rail, a ramp to their door, or a key safe for use by carers. This suggests that criminals use these items to identify vulnerable tenants.

We want people to live in housing that is suitable, safe, and promotes dignity as they grow older. Which is why we’re campaigning and working with a range of housing associations to improve the accessibility of both new homes and existing housing.

Home adaptation services are not always joined up effectively with other services. There needs to be more information about the needs of disabled and older tenants, and adaptation services need to be integrated with other new-build, retrofit and rehousing policies as part of an inclusive and preventative housing strategy.

This would enable cases to be picked up earlier, better solutions found, and more people helped to retain or regain their independence.

Invisible Creations® is all about designing for dignity. Our aim is to design inclusive, attractive and dual-purpose products to support people to live more independently and well for longer.

We create products that are designed to remove the negative stigma so often associated with current assistive and accessible products. We believe homes should be a haven, not a hospital and products designed to help you remain independent should be attractive, not clinical. We combine everyday household items, such as toilet roll holders, shelves and planters, with support rails to produce a range of grab rails in disguise, providing people with all the help they need to get around the home without needing to compromise on style.

The Invisible Creations® products have the potential to reduce the frequency of falls in and around the home as people age. The appeal of the universal design, in removing the stigma attached to traditional adaptations, means earlier intervention is both possible and acceptable.

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