BBC News

Retirement village life: A third way to face old age

By Nick Triggle and Smitha Mundasad
BBC News

media captionResidents can learn new skills and have a busy social life

Old age is associated with moving into a care home or struggling on in your own home. But is there an alternative? The residents of the Denham Garden Village retirement complex think so.

For those who were at the November auditions for Britain's Got Talent at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in London, it will live long in the memory. The 20-strong band who sang the Elvis Presley hit The Wonder of You were quite different from the normal wannabes. The group was entirely made up of pensioners.

Among them that day was 84-year-old widow Irene Griffiths. She has always loved singing and was one of the prime movers behind the attempt to get on the TV show. She runs a singing group, Voices, at Denham Garden Village, a retirement centre in Uxbridge on the outskirts of London. Most of the band came from the group.

Irene says: "It was a fantastic experience and by all accounts we almost made it through. It was good to show what us old people can do. I have always loved singing - its good socially, good for your breathing and memory. It is important to keep active like this as you get older. I have always tried to do that."

Active living

Irene is lucky in many ways. She remains in good health and that has allowed her to make the most of the opportunities her life at Denham has presented her with. She organises trips for other residents and has helped run a film club. Last year she was even chair of the residents' association.

She has lived in the village for five-and-a-half years and is one of a growing band of pensioners opting to spend their final years at such complexes.

Denham, which is run by the not-for-profit housing group Anchor, is typical of many of the retirement villages that have opened across the country. It is built around a central hub containing a health club, swimming pool, GP surgery, village hall and cafe-bar.

image captionIrene Griffiths has immersed herself in village life

The 327 homes - both houses and apartments - can either be bought or rented and have been designed to accommodate the needs of older people. Lifts can be installed and they come equipped with floor-level showers and grabs rails.

There are also domiciliary care services that can be bought in if and when necessary. The cost is £15 an hour, which is broadly in line with what local authorities charge. The aim is to keep people living independent lives rather than having to turn to care homes and other intensive support as they get older.

However, while it has been designed to be part of the wider community, you cannot get away from the sense that it remains a self-contained community - a kind of university campus for pensioners. Residents could easily never leave the site.

Safety net

Irene moved to Denham with her late husband after the upkeep of their three-bedroom bungalow in the nearby village of Ickenham became too much.

"My husband had emphysema and was struggling to help with the garden and around the house and it was just too much for me on my own so we decided to move somewhere smaller. Denham was perfect. I knew it because I used to drive past here. So we sold our house and bought a two-bedroom apartment."

She says one consideration was that by purchasing a property - it cost just under £350,000, £50,000 less than they sold the bungalow for - she knew there would be something that she could pass on to her two daughters.

This is something that not everybody is able to do. Increases in life expectancy have meant there has been a rise in the numbers of people going into care homes - and many do not qualify for any state help towards the cost so find themselves having to sell their family homes to pay for their places.

"The great thing here is that there is independent living, but you do have that safety net if you need it," says Irene.

Soon after moving in to Denham, her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. It came too late. It had spread and three months later he died.

"We always thought there was something else wrong and it was very hard to cope with just after the move. But he was positive and stayed strong. I know it was a comfort to him that he saw where we had moved to and could see that I would be happy here."

But Irene is not the only person who has kept busy since moving to Denham Garden Village. Also present at the Britain's Got Talent audition that day was 83-year-old widow Joan Emms.

She moved to the village four years ago and has since found love with 92-year-old ex-publican Fred Miller. They enjoy their Saturday nights out.

"We go to the cafe-bar," says Joan. "They often have live acts and we enjoy a dance - well I do. I have a vodka and soda and Fred likes his gin and tonics. They're nice clean drinks - that's important at our age."

'We've got our memories'

But not everybody is as lucky as Joan and Irene. Wendy Prosser, 74, cares full-time for her husband Neil, 81, at Denham. This is not a unique situation. Carers UK estimate 1.3m people over the age of 65 are providing care to loved ones, filling a vital gap as council-run social care has had to start to ration the amount of help it can provide amid rising demands from an ageing population and squeezes on its budgets.

image copyrightunknown
image captionDenham Garden Village has 327 homes, split between leasehold and rented properties

Neil was left with limited mobility after having brain surgery to remove a tumour eight years ago. It means he can only walk short distances with the help of a walking frame.

The couple sold their house in Dorset for £180,000 and invested the proceeds, which allows them to pay the £760-a-month rent.

"For me as a carer, it works really well," says Wendy. "I go to the gym four times a week where I get to mix with young people. That is important; you must never lose that. I have a joke with them about the music they play. I tell them, 'That's not music.'

"The problem is, when your life changes like it did for us you can end up very isolated. We were keen golfers and our social life revolved around that. But after Neil's operation that went. We didn't blame our friends. They had their own lives.

"But it's no good feeling sorry for yourselves. I say to Neil, 'We've got our memories.' We will sit there and say, 'Do you remember that holiday or that day?' It is terribly important to cling to the positives.

"It can be very testing at times. Neil has memory problems and can be quite forgetful so I find myself having to repeat myself a lot. Now, we've run three businesses together so when that person you have done all that with has lost some of those capabilities it can be hard.

"This is what I have got to do. The NHS saved Neil's life. It gave us eight years we would not have had otherwise so it is my responsibility to look after him. I'm never going to let or expect anyone to help us. That wouldn't be right.

"You have to remember that it 's not the end of life. It's the beginning of another phase. If you can embrace it, it can be really good."

Losing mobility

But not everyone has got someone to look after them. Freda Shand was working as an actress when she was diagnosed with a narrowing of the spinal canal - nearly 30 years ago.

Now in her 80s, she is confined to a wheelchair, but does not have family close by to look after her. She pays for one-and-a-half hours of care a day from Denham's domiciliary care team.

"I have been gradually losing mobility as I get older. When I came here I could walk with a frame and I could get into the pool, but not any more.

"Realising there are things you can no longer do gets harder. You are always having to readapt. Take driving, for instance. I can no longer drive so I catch the bus into town. I have a friend who has MS and is in a wheelchair too. But as buses can only take one person in a wheelchair at a time we don't go into town together.

"There are times when I feel trapped, but you have to get on with it. You can still live an independent life. I have lovely friends here - that is important and gives me strength."

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