With the region’s towns and villages ageing at a faster rate than in cities, the need for housing to help older people live independently is becoming more acute than ever. Rob Parsons reports.
Sitting in his armchair with dog Spot at his side, 79-year-old Reg Scaife tells The Yorkshire Post about the only home he’s ever known.
The stone farmhouse near Hampsthwaite in North Yorkshire dates back to the turn of the 20th century and was his parents’ home before he was born. In their later years, it was where he cared for them without recourse to social services.
The former bus driver and farmer hasn’t had a holiday from the house since his school days and after nearly eight decades there can’t even imagine leaving.
But after a nasty fall last summer led to him needing a lengthy operation to replace his damaged hip, the former bus driver’s deteriorating health and difficulty in getting about meant his future at the property was looking ever more uncertain.
For Reg, the prospect of moving is unimaginable. “It is my life, there is no way I would leave,” he said. “I don’t mind struggling, being independent makes a big difference.”
The turning point came with the arrival of Poppy Charters-Hess from North Yorkshire County Council’s Living Well scheme, a project designed to maintain the independence of adults and reduce the need for social care support.
After turning up in February as part of a 12-week support programme, Mrs Charters-Hess was immediately struck by the freezing temperature of -4C inside the house, where Reg sat huddled and stiff.
Though Reg had installed electricity in the house years ago, it had no central heating and a log burner that didn’t work properly. Typically stubborn, Reg just put on an extra jumper, but the cold was hindering his recovery from his operation.
With the help of Living Well, six months later things are looking more positive. An environmental health assessment by Harrogate council led to full central heating and a replacement burner being installed, and the transformation of his bathroom into a more accessible ‘wet room’ will improve things even further.
With family member Margaret a regular visitor at his home and 12-year-old Jack Russell Spot for company, Reg talks happily about the upcoming Irish music concert he is organising, something he has done for the last 25 years for charity.
“He didn’t think he deserved it, but he deserves to live in a habitable home,” says Mrs Charters-Hess. “He is an example of someone who has given back to the community.”
The desire for people to remain independent in old age, in a home of their own rather than being forced to go into care, was the focus for dozens of industry professionals when they gathered in Harrogate for the Rural Housing for an Ageing Population conference, organised by the Northern Housing Consortium.
And according to Lord Richard Best, a peer who lives just a few minutes away near Tadcaster, policy-makers at local and national level have yet to catch up with the enormous challenges caused by the way the country’s population has aged.
Getting Whitehall mandarins to understand more than what is going on in London is hard enough, he told the audience, with central government’s grasp of rural issues being worse still.
Describing the problem, the 73-year-old said: “There is another 20 years of life that when I was born you didn’t need to worry about.
“A family home, a three bedroom home with a garden is what we thought we needed. But we now have these 20 extra years in which a family home is not necessarily the best option for you.”
By ‘right-sizing’, the preferred industry term instead of ‘down-sizing’, Lord Best says older people can avoid being tipped out into residential care before it’s is absolutely necessary.
But particularly in rural areas, he fears there is a lack of suitable accommodation which will properly provide for their needs, with government policy and the commercial incentives of house-builders meaning three-bedroom family homes dominate.
Though Sajid Javid pledged to build 300,000 homes a year while Housing Secretary, the peer questions how many of these will be for older people.
Citing a recent Demos report that 30,000 homes a year are needed for older people to ‘right-size’ to, currently only 7,000 such homes are being built annually, meaning we are “miles behind”.
“We are just not getting these homes built,” said Lord Best. “There is no way we are going to get the major housebuilders interested in this. They make their money making the same old family houses, and now a lot smaller as the space standards have declined.”
He adds: “However keen we are are to right-size it is difficult because we haven’t got to this tipping point where house builders and others for us to go and visit. We want to spent our Sundays looking at potential places to go to and we don’t find them.”
In rural locations the difficulties are more pronounced as people get older, though there are also advantages like the presence of North Yorkshire’s rural housing enablers, responsible for brokering what needs to be done to get new homes built in local area.
Rural homes often have higher fuel bills and worse broadband connections with housing costs in general being 20 per cent higher despite wages being lower.
And though one solution is creating accommodation on the edge of market towns where the best care can be provided for older residents, many are reluctant to move away from their homes in more rural locations.
Describing a meeting with a tenant farmer in Sowerby who had been working on the farm well into his 70s, Lord Best said he “wasn’t able to move because there was nowhere for him to go”.
“If he moved away he was likely to lose not just the farm but all the connections he had made in the locality.
“He desperately needed somewhere to go to because it was literally falling down, bits of the house had actually fallen down. Some of the people tucked away in rural locations are in ridiculous conditions.”
In North Yorkshire, described as leading the way on the issue, there are growing numbers of sites offering specialist accommodation for the elderly.
Richard Webb of North Yorkshire County Council told the conference that it has 22 ‘extra care’ sites, totalling more than 1,000 self-contained homes with design features and support services available to aid self-care and independent living.
The hope is to have 50 such sites, including more in the Harrogate area, and in Bentham on the border with Lancashire locals are pushing for a local scheme for the sake of the town.
Mr Webb, the director of health and adult social services at the council, told the conference: “This is a really vital issue, we know about the issues around demographics and our changing expectations as a society. Older people are often seen as a problem but they are not.”