(This article first appeared in caring Times – June 2017 edition)
Some years ago, my wife and I packed our bags (and our dogs!) and went to live in Florida. Our task there was to take over the running of a failing Assisted Living Facility in the middle of the State and, having steadied the ship, to then go on and build a brand new Assisted Living Facility up in Orlando. I believe the phrase ‘how difficult can it be?’ was used somewhere along the line. Plenty of sunshine, common language, “it’ll be like a 2-3 year long holiday” I optimistically said. Well, needless to say, things didn’t quite work out like that.
Firstly, there’s the whole ‘same language’ thing. It was George Bernard Shaw who famously described England and America as ‘two countries divided by a common language’. On day one, I found out what he meant. I ventured out to a huge Walmart store in the middle of one of the blue collar, ‘rust belt’ neighborhoods which, in more recent times, propelled Donald Trump to the White House. I walked over and interrupted the conversation of two large Hispanic sales staff and asked if they could ‘possibly tell me where they kept the kettles’. Everyone in earshot stopped what they were doing and turned to stare. The silence was deafening. I confess I have never sounded more English than at that particular moment. I might as well have asked them if they could tell me who opened the batting for England in the first Ashes Test of 1936. Or, if perhaps, they fancied a game of cribbage after supper in the drawing room. After much deliberation, head scratching, confused squinting and me miming making a cup of tea, we finally decided that what I wanted was a ‘water kettle’ and they explained that they didn’t sell them. I dejectedly returned to the ALF to spend an infuriating afternoon in the admin office where my request for a few sheets of A4 paper was met with a blank stare. Turns out I wanted ‘eight and a half by eleven’. How was I to know? I have never measured it. I then found the letter I had subsequently written, pinned up on the notice board! I had to explain that this was a private letter and when I said I wanted someone to ‘post it’ for me, I meant put a stamp on it and send it in the mail – not ‘post it’ on the main notice board in the reception for all to see!
On the up side, I was very pleasantly surprised that the ‘elderly care home’ we had come to run was a world apart from its UK counterpart. An elderly care facility in America was clearly not a converted seaside boarding house with lino floors and hard backed chairs spaced out around the perimeter of a well-worn dining room. Neither was it a rabbit warren of small bedrooms with one large bathroom at the corridor end and a strong smell of ammonia assaulting the senses. No; the facility in Florida was spacious, well-appointed, filled with happy, busy, active people. It had a constant flow of visitors dropping in for all manner of classes, meals with friends, evening events, etc. I know the weather helps and the Americans are generally more outgoing as a nation, but even still, it was an eye opener for me. It was somewhere the residents aspired to be. I suppose the comparison was slightly unfair as the ALF movement in America caters for what we would consider residential, nursing and extra care residents all under one roof. This was several years ago and the standard of UK care homes has improved dramatically since, but I remember feeling how much more attractive the facility was there compared to a bog standard UK care home. In this instance the common terminology was again describing something quite different, but this time in a good way.
I was thinking about all of this whilst reading the latest report to come out of my alma mater – The School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University. The report was commissioned by Churchill Retirement Living and is based on a PHD Research project. It raises several interesting questions about the current market for ‘retirement living’: not least, the terminology itself. We still talk about over 55’s housing for example. The idea that I will need a specially adapted form of housing when I reach that great age in about 5 years’ time is laughable. Well it is to me anyway: you can keep your snide comments to yourself. Also, the idea that we ‘retire’ in the conventional sense is also out of the window now. Retirement these days can mean a second career for many people. It can mean a 30-40 year span of time. For others – and I include myself in this bracket – it is a meaningless phrase. I don’t want to stop doing what I enjoy doing to instead spend my time playing golf, which I only occasionally enjoy and I am not as good at. The baby boom generation and my lot – Generation X – want aspirational housing that reflects what we do and who we are. The Extra Care model is evolving very quickly and, in my view, it’s about time.
The older generation of pre-War babies was old at 55. They retired at 60-65 and, if they were lucky, carried on a life of ‘pottering’ in the garden and playing golf for a few years until they shuffled off this mortal coil conveniently freeing up much-needed housing for the Baby Boomers following them. The Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are a selfish lot. Living until they are 95, refusing to downsize, taking degree courses in the University of the Third Age and developing digital tech start-up businesses at 65. We need to find a way to meet their demands. We need to create aspirational housing that will attract this group out of their family homes and thus free up the much needed stock for the next generation. This means raising the bar. They are a very demanding lot. These are the folk who marched on the streets in the 1960’s for social change; this is the group who sent man to the Moon; let’s face it, this is the Rolling stones! They won’t go quietly or put up with a second-rate anything.
There are some great developers coming into this market and where the Americans led with their ALF’s and retirement communities, we can follow. But we need new terminology – let’s get rid of all of the previous ‘sheltered’ this, ‘assisted’ that, ‘extra’ the other, and lets develop housing which is actually wanted: apartments with large glazed balconies, developments with cinemas, coffee shops and swimming pools. Let’s make it a new use class of its own. Let’s make it a special case like we did with affordable housing. I’m going with ‘C5’ housing. It has no age connotations and – apart from sharing its name with a certain failed electric tricycle – it could actually be aspirational.