Are retirement villages the answer for the ageing population?

By Nick Triggle
Health correspondent, BBC News


The social care system is often said to be in crisis. Thousands of people each year sell their homes to pay for the care that the state is struggling to provide. Could retirement villages be the solution for some?

media captionLeslie and Joanne Wolfendale, both aged 89, talk about their experience of Willicombe Park retirement village in Tunbridge Wells

Leslie Wolfendale is quite clear. The 89-year-old describes the move to Willicombe Park Retirement Village in Kent three years ago as the "best move we have ever made."

"We have lived all over - Berkshire, Cheshire and south Wales. But we have never regretted moving here."

Leslie and his wife, Joanne, moved to the village, which boasts 67 one- and two-bedroom properties, a gym, swimming pool and restaurant, from south Wales where he had worked as a managing director of a manufacturing company.

"I didn't think we would ever move to a retirement village, but when you look at the facilities and the way it promotes independent living, we started to think differently," Leslie says.


The couple, who have three children, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, have tried a host of different activities during their time at the village.

Between them, they have done Tai Chi, exercise classes, aqua aerobics and yoga.

They have also got involved in the social events, which have included themed nights in the restaurant, crossword groups and quizzes.

"You do meet people and become friends. That is very nice. It is important to remain active as you get older," says Joanne, who is also 89.

But she also says it is the support that they get which makes a big difference.

"The bins are collected from outside our apartment, we can have meals delivered to us, anything we want really."

The village also has an in-house care team, which helps residents with activities such as washing, dressing and eating if needed.

The Wolfendales do not need such support yet, but Joanne says it is a great comfort to know it can be easily arranged if they need it.

"It is a reassurance."

Promoting health

Others at the village, run by the Audley group, share their views. Michael Mercier, who is 86, moved to the village 12 years ago after his wife died.

He still works one morning a week doing the accounts for a local business.

"Independence is really promoted here. I swim every day, except Wednesday when I work."

He too has not needed to call on the day-to-day care services available, although he has had some modifications made to his home, including having rails installed after he had a fall.

image captionSwimming is just one of the activities that is available at the village

And it is having this sort of support on hand that helps to keep the elderly independent at such villages.

Research by York University has shown that retirement villages have a beneficial impact on maintaining and promoting health.

In particular, the study highlighted reductions in falls, greater well-being because of less social isolation and the ability of villages to provide residents with better access to services such as blood pressure checking, flu jabs and exercise classes.

The attraction of retirement villages is also bound up with the fact that they offer the home-owning elderly a way of staying on the property ladder while getting all the care they need.

Apartments at Willicombe are currently fetching somewhere between £200,000 to £350,000. People buy them and own the property as any leaseholder would.

Maintenance charges - for things such as bin collections, gardening and window cleaning - are high at £600 per month. However, other villages away from the south-east tend to have much lower fees.

Growing sector?

But despite the success of complexes like Willicombe, retirement villages are still few and far between.

Overall there are fewer than 20,000 retirement village properties in the UK. To put that into context, Australia, which has a third of the population, has 160,000 units.

However, there are signs that could be about to change.

Anchor, a not-for-profit care provider which has traditionally operated at the lower end of the market, providing home care and running care homes, has started moving into the retirement village sector.

It has recently opened a complex called Denham Garden Village, set in 30 acres of Buckinghamshire countryside.

Anchor has another three in development and sees them as a growth area.

Nigel Hackett, Anchor's head of building development, says: "I think with the ageing population and the way things are moving, there is going to be growing demand."

Nick Sanderson, who is chairman of the Association of Retirement Villages and chief executive of Audley, agrees.

"Retirement villages have not taken off here as they have elsewhere. Getting planning permission can be difficult and I think Brits have an attachment to their homes than is not always seen in other countries.

"But I really believe things are about to change. There is a new generation of older people coming through who were born after the war.

"They have money and will demand more. They won't put up with the status quo."

But that does not mean there are not challenges for such villages.

Richard Humphries, a social care expert at the King's Fund health think tank, agrees they have "great potential" to become an important part of elderly care provision.

But he adds: "I think they need to make sure they get better at providing support when care needs increase in the last few years of life.

"They have not always been so good at dealing with that and if people end up in a care home, it defeats the whole purpose of them."

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