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White paper: data shows disconnect between retirement housing offering and public perception

  • 1 in 3 members of public believe retirement housing schemes are synonymous with ‘old people’s homes’
  • Data shows public perception and knowledge of services skewed to match stereotype of ‘lonely, single older person with health issues’
  • Providers not meeting expectations of public in service provision
  • High profile experts from across the sector advise retirement housing schemes be marketed by benefits, not age of user, and mirror expectations of target demographic as well as calling for a centralised advisory board for older people

A cross-industry steering group, which included representation from Orbit, has highlighted a significant disparity between public perception and actual offering at retirement housing schemes, as well as identifying clear issues with language and missed opportunities by the retirement housing sector’s marketing approach.

Research commissioned by law firm Shakespeare Martineau, which specialises in later living, included a consumer survey of 2,000 UK adults and 100 representatives from retirement housing providers. Of those public respondents, 1 in 3 members of the public believe retirement housing schemes are synonymous with ‘old people’s homes’ and there was disconnect between the services the public expected compared to the services actually offered by housing providers. For example, more than half (56%) of the public respondents expected a medical centre or 24/7 emergency response to be available, when in fact closer to only 1 in 3 (36%) providers selected this service as one they did provide, indicating that providers are coming up short of the expectations of the public.

Louise Drew, partner and Head of Building Communities at Shakespeare Martineau, said: “We have long suspected inconsistencies in the perception of the benefits of retirement housing, due to a lack of public understanding. This, linked with limited information on the various products available and an internal inconsistency of language within the sector, is causing the perfect storm. 

“Misconceptions that retirement housing schemes are the same as care homes is tarnishing the sector’s reputation – regrettably worsened by the high mortality rates of residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to corroborate our concerns and identify the disconnect, so that, with this knowledge, the sector can take steps to improve education and awareness of the many benefits of retirement housing in a bid to encourage ‘right-moving’ and a more proactive consumer adoption of these schemes.”

The research explores the use of language in the sector, public awareness of benefits and services, perception of what type of person would benefit from retirement housing and public understanding of retirement property tenure types. Representatives from organisations including Housing 21, Lifestory Group, the Housing Learning and Improvement Network, Orbit Group, Elderly Accommodation Counsel, the Local Government Association, the Chartered Institute of Housing and Shakespeare Martineau came together to analyse the findings and map out what is needed to alter perceptions and fill the knowledge gaps.

When asked about benefits of schemes, more than three quarters of the public agreed that retirement housing offered a safe and secure place to live (76%), two thirds felt that they are a good alternative to residential care homes (66%) and more than 3 in 5 (62%) agreed they offer a desirable place to live . However, only around 1 in 4 (28%) of the public agree that retirement housing offers good value for money – with nearly half of respondents stating that they didn’t know.

When asked about the ‘type’ of people who would benefit from living in a retirement housing scheme, only the minority of the public believed highly active (33%) or working (14%) older people would benefit. Housing providers believed ‘older couples’ are amongst the most suitable group (91%) but only 44% of the public agree, with a higher proportion (67%) selecting single people.

The data also demonstrates key gaps in age perception, with more than 70% of housing providers defining an ‘older person’ as being 55 years-plus, compared to just 20% of consumers, the most popular option by consumers was 65 years-plus, with 42% choosing this option. Crucially, the consumer data indicated that the older you are, the older you perceive an older to person to be. 82% of those surveyed who were 55 years and older perceived an ‘older person’ to be 65, 75 or 85 years-plus.

Francis Burrows, Director of Support and Service Development at Orbit, said: “What was clear from the research and our group discussion was the need for clarity – we must demystify retirement housing. So often we hear residents saying how they had wished they’d moved into a scheme earlier, or that they hadn’t realised how beneficial it could be – this needs to change, but this has to be a united push for change across both public and private operators.”

The white paper indicates an untapped potential and referrer market. When asked if they would consider moving into a retirement housing scheme themselves, public respondents were unsure – only 8% saying they would ‘definitely’ consider moving in. More than 3 in 4 people responded with either ‘maybe’ or ‘don’t know’ indicating a huge market-base of potential customers, who either need further information or further convincing of why they should ‘definitely’ consider retirement housing schemes.

An even greater proportion of public respondents were undecided on whether they would recommend retirement housing schemes to others – with 79% opting for ‘maybe’ or ‘don’t know’, posing the argument that there is also an untapped referral market who could be convinced to recommend retirement housing schemes to friends and family members if they had the right information.

It also highlights the need to focus on celebrating the benefits of schemes over and above labelling schemes with words such as ‘retirement’ and ‘older people’ – opening them up to more people.

Louise added: “Retirement housing isn’t suitable for everyone, but it’s clear that there is a need for a centrally-delivered advisory board for older people - and the language used by the advisory board and the sector as a whole should be consistent, positive and benefit-led, so that the public has the information they need to make an informed decision about retirement housing.

“For years we’ve seen research paper after research paper banging the drum for suitable, appropriate housing – as it’s been shown to increase happiness and life satisfaction, and decrease costs to the NHS - but if we are going to get more people considering retirement housing schemes we have to make them aspirational and properly understood by our older generation. Retirement housing must become a model of want, not need. We can only drive this demand by showing the public the lifestyle benefits gained from these schemes and through better education, information and marketing.”

Download the full white paper.