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To move or not to move?

To move or not to move?

That is the question. Ask older people if they are satisfied with their home and most say that they are. But what happens if they are asked what they don’t like? Sarah Hillcoat-Nallétamby explains

They say a Welsh person’s home is their castle and that once settled they are not likely to move. It is true that figures for home owners living in Wales show that the older we become, the less likely we are to move home, except for a little blip around pre-retirement age when some of us are making a move and carrying through on decisions about where we want to live in later life.

When researchers ask older people how satisfied they are with their home and neighbourhood, the pattern is similar – with increasing age, people are more likely to say they are ‘satisfied’ – ‘very satisfied’ in fact – with their living environments. Add together a decreasing likelihood of moving home as we age, with apparently increasing levels of satisfaction with where we are living, in a context where government encourages us to stay put at home and age in place in our communities, and it might seem odd to ask whether ‘staying put’ is really the best option for us in later life1.

But the question is a legitimate one if we look at the research evidence from another angle, by taking a look at some of the problems with ‘staying put’, and by focusing on what people say they dislike about their home and neighbourhood – in other words, asking how dissatisfied they might be. Currently little is known about how such dissatisfaction might influence older people’s thoughts and decisions about moving home.

Recent research

However, in Wales we can now shed some light on this question through a research study recently carried out at Swansea University’s Centre for Innovative Ageing and Social Policy Programme. Using the Welsh 2004 Living in Wales survey, researchers have examined whether older people’s dislikes about their home and neighbourhood do in fact influence their intentions to move2. The 2004 survey provides a unique source of data on households and their occupants across Wales for us to look at this question, because it offers information about people’s residential histories and intentions (how long they have been living at their current address and whether they are contemplating a move), as well as their dislikes and levels of satisfaction with several aspects of their own home environment (size of rooms, location, internal and external conditions, etc.) and their neighbourhood (noise, maintenance, people, facilities, etc.).

Some initial findings from the study show that most people in their 50s or  more – about 90 per cent – say they are ‘fairly’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their home and neighbourhood environments. At this point, the conclusion to be drawn might seem clear cut – older people in Wales are happy with their lot and will not be planning a move. But an extensive review of international research literature has highlighted several questions about the potential disadvantages of ‘staying put’.

Do our homes, many of which in Wales represent very old housing stock, really serve us well if physical or cognitive needs start to change, when stairs become more difficult to climb, when gardens are just too big to maintain or when parking and pavements are hazardous to negotiate
so that it becomes difficult to go out? Will ‘staying put’ become more challenging for older people if family circumstances alter, perhaps through divorce or widowhood, so that financial resources change or living alone becomes the norm? Do neighbourhoods change so much over time or because of rapid redevelopment that they no longer seem the familiar or friendly places they used to be? Are they accessible places to live in later life (are pavements, recreational and shopping spaces mobility- friendly, for example?), and do they offer appropriate facilities and services (shops, public transport)? Whilst ‘staying put’ may at first seem the best option in later life, this evidence suggests we should also bear in mind its disadvantages.

Looking deeper

For Wales, pushing the boat out further in research terms, when we looked deeper into the Living in Wales data, it was clear that despite high levels of satisfaction, about one-fifth of older people nonetheless said they would like to, or needed to,

move home, and more than six out of ten also disliked something about their home, neighbourhood or both. The things they disliked most and which cannot be easily resolved without moving home were to do with the location, room size, layout or design of their property; or because they disliked the people in their neighbourhood and found it a noisy and poorly maintained environment.

Do these dislikes have any impact on older people’s thoughts or intentions about moving home? Our results suggest that they do. Compared to older people who say they are happy with their lot (they do not have any particular dislikes with their home or neighbourhood), people who do dislike at least one thing about their home are about five and a half times more likely to be contemplating a move, those disliking something about their neighbourhood nearly twice as likely, and those disliking something about both environments, almost two and a half times more likely.

Three issues

These findings point to three issues. First, policy needs to be informed by robust evidence that provides solid grounds
for thinking about both the benefits and disadvantages of staying put. If it is not always the best option, then this means increasing opportunities for older people to consider whether they might actually want to move, particularly if it suits changing lifestyle, physical, cognitive, family and financial needs and can promote a sense of security and independence.

Second, if research is to provide a sound evidence base for policy making about later life housing needs, we should not pre-empt our findings – asking questions about people’s levels of satisfaction with their home and neighbourhood is a well established approach to collecting data about our moving intentions for example. We are much less likely, however, to ask people to tell us about their housing dislikes, so it becomes more difficult to gauge its influence on our moving intentions and behaviour. Perhaps this is because questions about dislikes open up a broader issue – what housing options can we offer to older people, if indeed, they do dislike their current situations and might wish to think about moving on?

This raises a third question. What can be done to increase older people’s awareness of different housing options – what information, advice and support services do we currently have in Wales about moving on options for example? And furthermore, what should we be investing in, in terms of alternative housing models such as co- or mutual housing schemes and which are suitable for later life needs?

Lastly, how far ahead are we thinking, in terms of making sure that new housing stock can be designed so that it incorporates lifetime design features – walls that can be moved if they are designed as partitions, stairways or wells that can accommodate a lift shaft or chair lift, shower rooms which are big enough to cater to expanding and shrinking sizes and needs, as children grow, leave home, partners move or pass on – housing fitted to the rhythms of changing family dynamics in other words. This all sounds perhaps pie in the sky, but the move towards lifetime home and neighbourhood designs, as well as more specialist housing design for later life, has begun to be explored and implemented in other contexts in the UK and beyond3.

Our research has a simple message – by asking older people what they dislike about their homes we can encourage ways forward in thinking about how to diversify the design and availability of later life housing options, and the types
of information, advice and support services which may be needed to ensure appropriate choices and decisions are made. All this is good news for Welsh investors, for older people and for all of us in the future who might like to ‘stay put’, providing our homes can adapt to us in ‘smart’ and ‘intuitive’ ways, rather than us having to adapt to them.

Dr Sarah Hillcoat-Nallétamby is director of the social policy programme and member of the Centre for innovative Ageing at Swansea University

1. Hillcoat-Nallétamby, S. & Ogg, J. (2009). To move or not to move? Residential relocation behaviour amongst older citizens in Wales. Report commissioned by The Office of the Chief Social Research Officer for the National Surveys Secondary Analysis Programme, Welsh Assembly Government, Cardiff (copy available from authors).

2. Hillcoat-Nalletamby, S.& Ogg, J. (2013). Moving beyond ‘ageing in place’: older people’s dislikes about their home and neighbourhood environments as a motive for wishing to move. Ageing and Society, doi: 10.1017/S0144686X13000482.

3. For example, see the Housing LIN website for further information (www.housinglin.org.uk/Topics/browse/Design%5Fbuilding/Neighbourhoods//); case studies undertaken by HAPPI (www.homesandcommunities.co.uk/ourwork/happi); for integrated approaches to neighbourhood and housing design using smart technologies see the work being undertaken by the Netwell Centre, Louth (www.cardi.ie/sites/default/files/Rodd%20Bond%20-%20Role%20of%20Technology.pdf) and (www.netwellcentre.org/projects.html

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