Thirty years ago I was lucky enough to be in at the beginning of a remarkable project, which helped start a change in how housing and care for older people was perceived in the UK. It’s physical expression was a retirement housing scheme called “Princethorpe Court”, which is still going strong today in a housing neighbourhood of Coventry.
It is important to understand the context in which this new form of provision was conceived, because many of the issues we faced then are still just as relevant today. Furthermore, a lot of the lessons we learned on our journey have still to be learned by many current policy makers and providers.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s sheltered housing had become an established form of retirement housing and it endures as a very effective first move into retirement accommodation for the majority of elderly people who have to or choose to move out of their family homes. Major specialist housing associations lead the way in developing this type of accommodation – Anchor, Hanover and Royal British Legion (now Housing 21). McCarthy and Stone was the only significant house builder to develop this provision in the private sector. Both were later copied by many other housing associations and house builders as the increasing size of the elderly population became more obvious.
There was a significant schism between the two types of providers. Housing associations were heavily subsidised with capital grants from the Government via the Housing Corporation, which enabled them to provide low-cost rented accommodation. The house builders didn’t have access to Government grants and therefore focussed entirely on housing for sale.
The key limitation of both types of accommodation was the need for care beyond emergency alarms. Once care was needed it was assumed people would move through a series of types of housing as their health became deteriorated :-
Category 1 – Sheltered Housing – Individual bungalows or flats sometimes with a communal lounge ;
Category 2 – Sheltered Housing – as above but linked by internal corridors and with slightly more communal accomodation ;
Category 3 – Residential Care Homes ( or Local Authority Old Peoples Homes )
Category 4 – Nursing Homes
Category 5 – N H S Geriatric Hospitals
These types of provision were born out of the boundaries of Government Departments and their funding responsibilities. They were a rough and ready solution to ending a lifetime. The concept that elderly people could move easily from one category to the next in later life ignored the reality that moving home is a very traumatic experience. What’s more the prospects of increasing frailty, more and more dependency, and less and less control over your life, were certainly not designed to offer a great outlook in later life.
More often than not, any move was forced upon people through increasing frailty, or driven by the concerns of relatives or Social Services. Some elderly people made a proactive decision to move to sheltered housing so that they could feel safer and more secure. Virtually no-one moved to residential care or old people’s homes with enthusiasm – a small, single or shared bedroom, a shared toilet and a chair in the communal lounge were just not that appealing. Absolutely no-one moved into a nursing home out of choice. It was a decision made by professionals. The ony way you moved onto geriatric wards was straight from an ambulance into a hospital bed, —–usually never to emerge again.
The social policy driver of all this provision was safety and security – the second lowest step on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There was no lofty ambition to offer new opportunities to older people in retirement, just a desire to find more economic housing and care for those who could no longer cope on their own. In the early 1980’s, a small Midlands based Housing Association – Coventry Churches Housing Association (later called CCHA, then Touchstone and finally Midland Heart), set out on a path that would go on to influence more recently developed retirement housing throughout the United Kingdom.
That is where the story of Princethorpe Court really begins.
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