Saying goodbye to the care home

Weighing up the pros and cons of emerging alternatives to traditional residential care

Not many of us look forward to spending our last days in a care home. High-profile collapses and negative publicity, not to mention steep costs, have increased the need for alternatives to residential care among a rapidly ageing population. But how can we achieve peace of mind in our later years?

Retirement living meeting high standards

Large-scale retirement villages have taken off in a big way in recent years. There are more than 100 in the UK alone, each usually comprised of 100 or more properties. There are a variety of housing styles with a range of facilities, some of which reach luxurious standards with sauna, spas and libraries. Meals and personal care are sometimes factored in within care packages and costs are tailored to the resident.

It is possible to buy, rent or take up a property on a shared ownership basis and the equity from your main property will usually stump up the funds for this often attractive alternative to residential care.

Older people can group together and create a suitable dwelling, sharing chores as well as meal times and social activities

The advantages to this solution are many. Perhaps your friends have passed? Here you’re bound to find someone you get along with. The village-style scheme also suits people who wish to continue living a reasonably independent life.

But you may not wish to be removed from your social circle and family. Then there’s the artificiality of a constructed “village”. And with comfortable facilities and on-site care, you would imagine they are fairly expensive and you’d be right.

Also, there are exit fees to consider. This polite terminology refers to the dissolution of the property in the event of your death or moving out, with several retirement villages receiving criticism for the hefty percentages they slap on.

Scandinavians lead the way

One idea that has gained traction from Scandinavia is co-housing, which sounds hygge, or cosy, as well as smart. The idea is that several older people group together and create a suitable dwelling, sharing chores as well as, in some cases, meal times and social activities. As an alternative to residential care, it all sounds rather enticing. There are people to spend your time with. It’s not as expensive as a retirement village or as intense as a care home.

But what of the cons? The most obvious is the lack of privacy. Yes, co-housers have their own room, but this is not much use if you are having a dinner-time dispute. Also, many of these dwellings have rules which can feel a bit draconian, especially if you have lived independently for many years.

However, with many of these communities committed to sharing resources and reducing the need for social services, this alternative to residential care is something of a winner when it comes to the ethical choice.

Sweden-based Kerstin Kärnekull, architect and member of the research group Living in Community, notes that there are too few of these models, despite a rise in interest. This is no doubt due to the economic model which cannot match the returns of some other alternatives. “The sad thing is that the housing sector doesn’t see the potential, yet,” says Ms Kärnekull.

Maria Brenton at Older Women’s Co-Housing echoes Ms Kärnekull’s frustrations. She notes there are currently too many obstacles when it comes to getting these projects off the ground in the UK. Why? She says it is down to: “A mixture of reasons: local authorities or pure ageism is a compelling one,” she says.

“Competing pressures for social care budgets, central government funding cuts and backward mindsets, all stand in the way of this winning idea of meeting an alternative to residential care.”

Can robots provide peace of mind?

In-home smart technology, a mere fantasy ten years ago, is one solution gaining traction. There are now older people living in familiar surroundings and utilising the benefits of connected homes, alongside a part-time human presence. Some of these technological advancements are now fairly commonplace, such as an emergency lifeline in case of a fall, for example.

But the one innovation which is most in the spotlight is that of the care robot. It sounds futuristic, but it has been catching on particularly in Japan with one Tokyo care home using 20 of these machines. The necessary human functions that come under the umbrella of personal care are still beyond any robot, however, and this is where the human care element will come in.

And with approximately 10.7 million people in the UK forecast to be living alone by 2039, according to the Office for National Statistics, will these independent baby boomers want to make the leap to retirement village and co-housing camaraderie?

The sheer affordability of this option cannot be disregarded. It sounds especially tempting compared to the high cost of other alternatives to residential care, and offers some escape from administrative effort and complicated estate planning. Also, if you do not wish to be uprooted at a time in life when change can be difficult, it all sounds promising.

But technology can be difficult to operate. It can also malfunction. And you can’t really have that much of a chat with a robot, exchange memories, engage in crafting sessions or enjoy shared meal times. As a full-time companion and carer, it could all take on a lonely, artificial tone.

However, with current demographic trends in Western societies, this may be the option many of us will have to consider in the future, whether we like it or not.