Sue Adams, OBE, CEO of Care & Repair England, discusses the importance of reconsidering the relationship between poor housing and health in older people.
Looking in the wrong place
Think pieces and TV programmes are forever telling us ways to change our lifestyles to improve health, so it can be easy to forget the wider environmental factors that can negatively impact it. Where we live is hugely important to our wellbeing – our homes being the foundation of a good life, impacting on both mental and physical health in many ways.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Ageing and Older People, who Age UK provide the secretariat for, is currently holding an inquiry into the detrimental impact poor housing has on older people’s physical, mental and social wellbeing. They’re due to publish an Inquiry Report, including suggested solutions, this summer.
Why is this link between housing, health and ageing neglected?
The World Health Organisation recently published its Housing and Health Guidelines, stating that: 'Improved housing conditions can save lives, prevent disease, increase quality of life, reduce poverty, and help mitigate climate change. Housing is becoming increasingly important to health in light of urban growth, ageing populations and climate change.'
Unfortunately, in England there's currently no housing policy to address the poor housing affecting more than 2 million older households (55yrs+). Government funding to tackle private sector disrepair stopped in 2010, including money for the well-targeted grants and loans that transformed the lives of many disadvantaged older householders.
What surprises policy makers is that most non-decent homes are owner occupied. Yet if we consider the data this is less unexpected than might first appear; 96% of older households are living in 'ordinary' housing (not sheltered, retirement, extra care etc.) and more than three quarters are home owners. The successful Decent Homes Programme in the early 2000s massively reduced disrepair in social rented housing, but failed to tackle the private sector to the same extent.
Making other connections
There is a strong link between poor housing and inequality and the majority (61%) of all older people living on low incomes are owner occupiers. Most of these people will be living in lower equity homes with limited alternative housing options. A recent report from the Northern Housing Consortium found that half of all non-decent homes are in the North of England and 82% of non-decent owner-occupied homes have a head of household who’s over 60.
The impact of poor housing on health has significant implications for the NHS. The Building Research Establishment estimate that the cost to the NHS of poor housing is £1.4 billion p.a. in first year treatment costs alone, with close to half of this attributable to impacts on older people. Poor health resulting from cold homes and falls in the home account for the majority of this cost to the NHS.
Local Age UKs have been important providers of information, advice and practical help for older people facing housing problems, as well as running related programmes to tackle fuel poverty and falls reduction.
Sadly so many of these invaluable services are struggling due to lack of funding. With prevention mentioned in the new NHS long-term Plan, alongside the vision for Government's proposed Prevention Green Paper, it’s time for policy makers to take improving health through improving older people's homes seriously, using local knowledge of what older people value and building on the evidence of past success.
Thinking more about where to live? Whether you're staying at home or moving somewhere you can receive more support, these are the things to consider.