Becky Ricketts looks at the challenges, causes and solutions to the housing disrepair crisis targeting our oldest homeowners.
Older people are more likely than any other demographic to own their own homes, but this is not always the privilege it seems.
Across Wales, thousands of older people are living in homes that are inaccessible, cold and in disrepair. From leaky gas fires to rotting floors, hazardous staircases to damp mouldy walls, the adverse experiences of some of our most vulnerable older people are an indication of a much wider policy gap.
Nearly 1 in 5 homes in Wales have a Category 1 hazard present, meaning the home poses risk to human health, and this rises to over 1 in 3 for homes built before 1919.
With the climate crisis causing unprecedented weather conditions, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns leading to a decline of physical function and health for older people, and a Welsh NHS facing unprecedented demand, it has never been more important to look after one’s home. Care & Repair Cymru’s new report, The State of Older People’s Housing in Wales shows the coexistence of these challenges, and how they have compounded to create a perfect storm for older people.
Spiralling Need, Funding Shortages
For Care & Repair, the increase in both client numbers and the complexity of clients’ needs due to multiple intersecting vulnerabilities are key indicators of the wider picture. In 2021-2022 we helped 56,897 older people – our highest number of clients in a single year for eight years. We completed over 58,000 individual works, meaning that many older people have needed multiple repairs to their home. Clients come to us with multiple concerns – a client having uneven flooring, no bannisters, penetrating damp, an inefficient boiler and no grab rails outside their front door is an increasingly common scenario.
The report addresses the many simultaneous challenges that are directly affecting the older population that Care & Repair supports every day but are too often beyond our control to mitigate. The impacts of Brexit, causing manufacturers to leave the UK, a rapidly changing employment sector that has more skilled tradespeople leaving the workforce than entering it, and UK political turmoil resulting in financial instability all contribute to the struggles experienced by older people in Wales.
The report explores six main challenges that older homeowners face:
- the overall challenge of improving homes
- the impact of the pandemic
- cost increases
- a shortage of reliable contractors
- the increasing complexity of completing projects
- and lack of funds to help those on low incomes
These challenges directly influence how quickly older people in need can be helped – the longer they wait, the greater the risk of deterioration, both in housing condition and health. Nearly 1 in 5 homes in Wales have a Category 1 hazard present, meaning the home poses risk to human health, and this rises to over 1 in 3 for homes built before 1919. With Wales having a median EPC rating of Band D, the need for energy efficiency and home insulation is key to protecting energy bills and health. Our clients are also low-income and the cost-of-living crisis means they are even less likely to be able to afford work in a volatile environment, so they have no choice but to turn to Care & Repair. These challenges are not unexpected, but they are growing in scale, with few improvements on the horizon.
What’s Really Going On?
Whilst these challenges may not be new information for many, it is the scale and impact of the problem on our oldest citizens that is most concerning. Care & Repair Technical Officers and Caseworkers are in the homes of older people every single day, witnessing their struggles first hand, and working with them to address the immediate concerns relating to their home.
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Our teams undertake a ‘whole house, whole person’ approach when conducting a Healthy Homes Check. This means that they assess and attend to both the health and the home of the people we visit, and frequently witness the chain of events from poor housing to illness. They see an older person who has just been discharged from hospital after being treated for a long-term health condition, only to realise their condition is caused by damp when entering their home. Too often, the people we see cannot afford the repairs to their house, and so accept living in dangerous conditions despite the damage to their health. We cannot accept that any older person should be living in such conditions.
With one in 14 people aged 90 and over in Wales being referred to Care & Repair last year and our average client age increasing to 75, we can clearly see that the current solutions to the housing disrepair crisis are not sufficient. Some local authorities offer limited assistance with housing disrepair in the form of loans, but for the oldest in our society this is just not a viable solution.
Without financial help, a section of our society will continue to have no choice other than to live in homes unfit for their needs, and in some cases unfit for habitation.
Additionally, with four out of five of our clients disclosing a disability, the work that may need to be undertaken can be beyond the financial limit of the loan. For those with physical disabilities, the adaptations they may need to live independently, such as wet rooms or a wheelchair-accessible kitchen, can be more substantial and therefore more costly, discouraging many people from applying and forcing them to live in conditions that do not support their needs.
Looking to the Future
To improve the lives of current and future generations, we believe that the introduction of a national safety net housing repair grant, available to low-income older people, should be introduced. This, distributed and overseen by Care & Repair as a proven trusted partner of Welsh Government, will enable older people in need across the country to access the support and intervention they need to be able to repair their home and live safely, comfortably and independently.
With Care & Repair already delivering strong preventative impacts and social return on investments from multiple projects and initiatives, the opportunity for increased returns to be made with the introduction of this grant is possible. For example, every £1 spent on Care & Repair’s Hospital to a Healthier Home service saves the Welsh NHS £8.60 on delayed discharges and transfers of care. Without financial help, a section of our society will continue to have no choice other than to live in homes unfit for their needs, and in some cases unfit for habitation.
We also draw on experience to make additional recommendations. With concerns and debates rising around fuel poverty and carbon emissions, we believe that the provision of technical and financial support to tackle energy inefficiency and carbon emissions is key to keeping older people warm as well as working towards Welsh Government’s goal of decarbonising all 1.4 million homes by 2050.
Related to this, a further recommendation is for Care & Repair to deliver services and technical solutions that support the decarbonisation of owner-occupied housing.
Finally, the increased investment into strongly preventative services such as Care & Repair must reflect the savings created and support provided. Evidence proves that spend-to-save approaches can reduce demand downstream within the NHS and Social Care. Increasing emphasis on such preventative services will enable the public purse to achieve more and realise some of the fantastic aims of progressive policies such as an Age Friendly Wales, Healthier Wales and Prosperity for All.
Read the full report from Care & Repair Cymru.
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