We live in an ageing society. Data released by the ONS in 2019 reveals that the number of over 85s is set to double in the next 25 years. While the UK population is set to rise by just under 5% (from 66.4 to around 69.4 million) in the next decade, the number of elderly people over 85 is set to double from 1.5 to nearly 3 million.

This has potentially devastating consequences for the NHS and a social care system already bursting at the seams. But you could be forgiven for wondering what it has to do with the housing market or conveyancing. Aren’t the elderly the least likely people to buy a new home? Or put up with the stress of moving?

It’s true. If we look at census data there is a direct correlation between your age and how likely you are to move. And from your late twenties onwards, the younger you are, the more likely you’ll move home.

So what’s the problem? 

A Lack of Suitable Homes

We’re forever hearing Britain doesn’t have enough homes. Too few council properties. Not enough affordable housing to help younger buyers get on the ladder. And let’s not even get started on London.

The conversation around our chronic lack of housing is forever bubbling away in the background. Government after government has promised a fix to the housing crisis with little tangible progress. And the truth is most of us have learned to treat it with a kind of weary resignation. 

But there’s one element of the housing crisis that doesn’t generate the same level of coverage. You’ll rarely hear it discussed on panel shows. Nor is it a regular feature in political discourse. 

We’re, of course, talking about the lack of suitable accommodation for the elderly. In a recent report, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) said that the failure to plan for a quarter of the country’s population being over 60 in five years’ time is likely to put ‘enormous strain’ on public finances. This is due to what it calls  ‘the health and social care costs of inappropriate housing.’

This was followed by an even scarier forecast from The Local Government Association. According to its research, the number over 65s whose day to day activities are ‘significantly limited’ will also rise by 30% in the next five years. In real terms, this means an extra 3 million people in need of specialist accommodation and provisions. 

To be clear, this isn’t just about care homes. But it is worth noting the parlous state of our care homes. Lack of investment in the sector has left many working with outdated facilities – 72% are over 20 years old. And many are struggling to survive at all. The last figures on the subject revealed that care home insolvencies increased by 83% in 2017.

Limited resources in specialist care make it increasingly likely that the residential property sector is going to have to pick up some of the slack. More and more elderly people are left with little choice but to receive care in their home, something our existing housing stock is ill-prepared for. 

What’s more, we’re simply not building new homes with the elderly in mind. When was the last time you saw a newbuild intended for elderly inhabitants? Or with any concession to age for that matter?

It’s not overstating it to say we’re facing a crisis. If large swathes of the population live in homes unsuitable for elderly care, where will they go? We’ve already covered the disastrous state of residential care facilities. Our hospitals are full. Our social care system is at breaking point. 

We need homes and we need them quickly.

What can be done?

Obviously, we need state investment. We need more socially-constructed housing for elderly people. We need more residential homes. And we need more specialist carers, provided with the resources they need. 

However, so far at least, the appetite to deal with the issue doesn’t seem to be there. None of the major political parties appears to feel any great urgency about building homes for people above pension age. Although, credit where it’s due, Labour did promise to ‘fund free personal care for older people’ in it’s 2019 manifesto.

But we can’t leave it all to the state. The issue is only growing and it needs to be battled on every front possible.

It’s here that the property sector, particularly developers, has a role to play. It’s obvious we need to build more purpose-built residential property for the elderly. Developers could provide it. Why not include a certain quota of housing suitable for elderly occupants in every development, much like the current obligation to build ‘affordable homes?

In the same vein, why not build houses that can be easily adapted to incorporate stairlifts or disabled bathrooms?

Of course, we’re not suggesting that this should be solely the responsibility of private developers, but they could reduce some of the strain on a creaking state. What’s more, it’s a real opportunity for developers to work in a new and growing market, all while doing some good. 

Whatever happens, the time when the issue can be put off is fast receding. The crisis is coming, how will the property sector react?