An ageing society needs real innovation to beat killer social isolation

Tackling Social Isolation (Demo)

Social isolation among older people is a bigger killer than obesity, so a more innovative approach to housing and care is needed for older people to live well and for longer, writes ENGIE’s Paula Broadbent – it’s just not enough to build more adaptive homes

SIMPLY building more adaptive homes or bungalows for older people who are socially isolated will not really create an answer to an issue that has become a bigger killed than obesity.

Paula Broadbent
Paula Broadbent, retirement solutions director, ENGIE.

A more innovative approach is required; one that will enable older people to live well for longer, give them choices in how they live, and mitigate the impact of social care on the NHS and local authorities.

There are a wide range of causes of social isolation in older adults. These include living alone; having a small social network, infrequent participation in social activities and feelings of loneliness, all of which pose significant health risks, such as an increased risk of dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, cognitive decline and depression.

One part of the solution is to provide older people with easy access to a safe space where social interaction with the wider community can be enabled. Providing specialist staff who can work on developing activities and interaction for all, as well as diversity and personalisation of activities and the opportunity to interact is vital.

For example, those older people who are recently bereaved can find the thought of entering a public gathering alone quite daunting. Having someone with you as support in this type of situation is vital.

This is particularly pertinent when you consider the research showing those able to develop a social network within a community, while they are in their mid-fifties or early sixties, with their life partner, find it far easier to deal with bereavement as an active part of an existing community.

Self-esteem is a fundamental element of positive mental health and contributing something to society, is a positive way for people of all generations to improve their own wellbeing.

Providing opportunities for intergenerational collaboration breaks down barriers and can really provide a win/win situation. For example, older people reading to younger children and helping with reading skills, or a “geek café” run by older DTI students, that help older people navigate the new world of social media and technology.

One thing’s for sure, there are some amazing possibilities but the key to optimising these is a will to make it happen and a central co-ordinator.

In many cases, these types of social interaction can be facilitated through the provision of age-appropriate housing, for example, through well-designed communal spaces or through organised community initiatives. However, developers tend not to build age appropriate housing – especially with these types of facilities and services – because it is rarely seen as financially viable to do so when compared with traditional family homes.

This is happening despite there being 12 million people over 65 in the UK, many of whom have a limiting or long-standing illness, yet the current housing stock in the UK provides only 35,000 homes that are suitable for retirement living.

In addition, there are 460,000 care home beds across the UK, but only 15,000 offer care facilities. Therefore, the number of appropriate homes suitable for older people is severely limited across all tenure groups, further exacerbating the social isolation – and broader health issues – this generation can experience.

A study by Andrew C Patterson, initially published in 2015, considered socioeconomic status and how it influences social isolation and mortality risk. The study showed that having a higher income actually increases the risks, while lonely people who earn higher incomes suffer especially from a higher risk of suicide and cancer.

This is a good indicator that mixed tenure, specialist housing and care provision is needed across the whole of society – not just aimed at the perceived vulnerable groups – in order to mitigate the impact of social care on the NHS and local authorities; a challenge all local authorities face.

The housing crisis is real, and we are woefully behind demand. High rates of homelessness and rough sleepers combined with younger people struggling to get on the property ladder are all key drivers to developers continuing to build efficiently designed starter homes and family homes.

But the housing crisis is also very real for the highest increasing demographic ‘over 55s’ and building life-long homes suitable for whatever later life has in store will inspire people to ‘rightsize’; freeing up family homes in to the housing market.

One thing is clear; a new approach is needed, and this thinking has led to the development of the LIFEstyle by ENGIE proposition, which is far more about a long-term community-focused service provision than it is traditional property development.

Houses, bungalows and apartment architypes are designed to be future-proof, adaptable and energy efficient, with a central hub designed to interconnect communities and provide safe space to enable activities, volunteering and intergenerational interaction.

In addition, specialist staff will look to combat social isolation proactively, not to mention initiatives such as access to an electric carpool and digital innovations enabling people to stay independent and safe for longer.

All of this promotes well-being and efficiency of in-service delivery, thereby reducing the need for health and social care interventions, something traditional developers are simply not offering.

One of LIFEstyle by ENGIE’s first pilot schemes is Waterton Green, in Walton, Wakefield (main image), with a second development about to commence in the beautiful coastal town of Scarborough.

ENGIE is keen to work with regional authorities in partnership to deliver mixed-tenure developments that will not only tackle some of the key issues that detrimentally affect people of older ages but also will work with the UKs journey towards a net zero carbon future.


Paula Broadbent is the retirement solutions director for ENGIE.



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