Earlier this month, Montagu Evans attended the ARCO (Association of Retirement Community Operators) annual conference. This conference gave a great insight into the societal benefits that retirement communities can provide and the barriers preventing increased supply.
A key agenda item across the political spectrum is trying to address the adult social care crisis, where there is increasing pressure on the cost and availability of care provision. This acutely impacts elderly care, which is demonstrated by research from Age UK that shows the proportion of older people feeling supported to manage their health condition has fallen nearly 20% over the past five years. The same body of research also suggests that one in five over 80s have an unmet need for social care. In addition, social care need is only expected to grow in line with wider demographic changes, where in the 20 years up to 2040, the number of over 65s is expected to increase by 40% to 18 million.
ARCO is an industry body that represents operators of Integrated Retirement Communities (IRCs), also known as extra care housing, which can play a crucial role in helping to ease the social care crisis. IRCs typically provide a minimum quantum of care, usually starting from one hour per week, which can range from cleaning and help around the home up to domiciliary care. Care provision can ramp up as needs change over time, allowing residents to own their independence and stay in their homes for longer.
In addition, IRCs provide a range of other benefits, such as access to health and wellbeing amenities, including fitness suites and, in some instances, hydrotherapy pools. The community element that IRCs provide is also important, as residents can socialise and join hobby and interest groups. These all help to reduce loneliness for older people who may have lost a partner or live far away from family. It is acknowledged that loneliness can contribute towards declining health, so helping to reduce this can only be a good thing for reducing pressure on social care.
Research undertaken by the ExtraCare Charitable Trust, a not-for-profit provider of IRCs, reported that residents living in Extra Care communities had better health, wellbeing and mobility, which led to savings for the NHS. In particular, by operating an informal drop-in facility by wellbeing advisers, there was a 46% reduction in routine and regular GP visits and a reduction in hospital stays from an average of 8-14 days to 1-2 days allowing hospitals to free up beds faster. This results in significant savings to the NHS, with research from Lancaster University suggesting that residents moving into an Extra Care scheme provide savings of 38% to the NHS.
There are just 70,000 housing with care (IRC) units in the UK, compared to an overall supply of care and retirement units of nearly 1 million. Given the benefits outlined above, why aren't more of these schemes being developed? A key blocker is planning, including the lack of extra care housing being allocated in Local Plans. Many operators in the sector also cite a lack of a clearly defined use class for housing with care, which results in varied interpretations and policies for this use across different planning authorities.
Following many years of campaigning by ARCO, a Housing with Care taskforce was launched by the government in May 2023 with the aim of understanding the market for older persons housing. It is hoped that the work of this taskforce will lead to changes that support the increased delivery of older persons housing by providing clarity in the planning system as well as other legislative changes. If this can be addressed, and there is a significant uplift in the supply of both private and affordable extra care, this should help to improve the social care crisis and help form the Towns of Tomorrow.