The Library at Cedars Village, Chorleywood

When's the Right Time… to Rightsize

18th May 2018

Not long ago, specialist retirement accommodation was aimed at those in need of dedicated care and support; now it’s all about aspirational independent living – and people are considering a move as early as in their 60s. Lisa Botwright finds out more…

I’m a fan of a fashion blog written by super-stylish Penny Kocher (a woman with a magpie eye for a bargain), in which she records how she puts together incredible outfits for all the glamorous events she attends, with the caveat that the clothes and accessories are one-off finds from vintage and charity shops (frugalfashionshopper.co.uk). She’s a huge media success with a positive, youthful and entertaining outlook, but one of her most popular posts isn’t about her unique brand of fashion – but about the fact that at the age of only 71, she and her 69-year-old husband made the decision to move to a retirement flat. Given how happy she seems to be with her new home, this very personal piece, in which she reveals her reasons behind the move, is surprisingly defensive in tone – ‘quite often there was shock, and a spluttered ‘but you’re too young for that!’…’ .

Her main motivation, she explains, came from wanting to downsize (or rightsize, to use the latest on-trend terminology) while she was still young and fit enough to manage the move by herself: ‘I cleared not one but three of my relatives’ houses. None of them had a plan for what they would do when they couldn’t cope, so it was down to the younger generation. One of the three was my widowed mother who, at the age of 78, couldn’t manage on her own.’ She recalls how she cleared the house in Suffolk and moved her mum to a sheltered housing development in Hove, while living in Brighton and working on a national project in London. “There were times when I woke up and had no idea which county I was in, as it meant many trips up to Suffolk and overnight stays during the working week to organise it all. I said to myself, again and again, I’ll do this earlier; I’ll never do this to my children.’

In the past, domestic options for older people were far fewer. Most people, as Penny flags up, lived in their own homes for as long as possible, since ‘retirement living’ was synonymous with institutionalised care and the dread of moving to an ‘old people’s home’. But now that we’re living longer than ever – the average 65-year-old can expect to live another twenty years – coupled with the fact that baby boomers are seen as an affluent demographic, developers are prompting a sea-shift in attitude by offering a growing range of aspirational accommodation especially designed for the over-60s.

The retirement village concept loosely means means developments built with older people in mind: self-contained flats, bungalows and houses, crucially each having their own front doors to promote independent living, but with access to communal areas, social activities and varying levels of support services. Like many trends, it comes from across the Atlantic. In the US, 17% of people of retirement age live in some kind of specialist retirement accommodation, while in the UK the figure, although growing, stands at less than 1%.

Evidence suggests that living in retirement communities has excellent health benefits. Research from the International Longevity Centre has shown that retirement community residents typically enjoy a more active old age. Aston University studied residents living in ExtraCare Charitable Trust retirement communities and found their cost to the NHS was a third less after a year in their new homes than before.

Ann, who moved to a McCarthy and Stone specialist retirement apartment in Watford seven years ago when she was 70, claims “it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” Before that the former midwife was living in a large four-bedroom house in Croxley Green. “I’d been a widow for eight years, and was coping well, but the house needed a lot of work doing to it.” She started looking at smaller, new-build (non retirement) flats, but was upset to find that many of them didn’t accept pets.

“I found these apartments on the internet, and it was one of the only places that would take my dog. I was shown round by a salesperson and soon after brought my son and daughter to see the development too.” The children were cautious, Ann tells me, and keen to make sure that their mother wasn’t rushing into things. “But there were so many positives,” Ann enthuses, including an enticing financial package of help with moving costs, and the serendipitous fact that her first choice of one of the larger ground-floor apartments with French doors leading onto the communal grounds had suddenly become available. “It was like it was meant to be,” she smiles. Like Penny, she wanted to be in control of her own move. “I could choose where I was going, where I wanted
to be. Some people arrive at the age of 80 or 90 and say ‘my daughter made me move’…”

There’s a management fee to pay towards the running costs of the development (“I’m so glad not to have the pressure of the up-keep of a home any more”), and she joins in with lots of the social activities that mainly take place in the communal lounge, where residents meet for coffee mornings or ‘take-away nights’. But otherwise Ann carries on with life as it was before – ‘after all, I only moved a couple of miles down the road’ – which includes spending lots of time with her children and two granddaughters to whom she’s ‘very close’.

Are there any downsides? “The car-park is too small,” she says. “McCarthy and Stone didn’t account for the fact that most residents here still drive – but that’s all I can think of.” Ann is also keen to clear up a lingering misunderstanding of the nature of senior communities. “I bumped into a former colleague, and she said, ‘oh, you’ve moved to that care home.’ But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Richard, 71, who moved to Cedars Village, Chorleywood, is similarly pleased with his lifestyle choice. He lives in an expansive, luxury retirement development in 22 acres of grounds (with expansive management fees to match) arranged around a Grade II-Listed Mansion House. There’s a communal restaurant, bar, library, even croquet lawns, plus a wonderfully elegant nineteenth century conservatory, housing a coffee area. I feel like I’m in a five-star country house hotel.

Richard has been here for eighteen months ago, and says. “I feel very lucky. My flat has a nice view of the woods, and it’s in a very peaceful spot. The residents have been very welcoming and I’m on good terms with almost everyone who lives here.” Richard had been caring for his elderly mother until her death three years ago, and felt very isolated in his Dorset family home. “It was an over-sized property and totally unsuitable.” Moving to Chorleywood meant being close to other family members, including a cousin who was so impressed with Richard’s new lifestyle that he recently made the move to Cedars himself.

As well as new, purpose-built developments, there are a host of other options for independent retirement living. Elaine, 79, tells me how she returned from living in the States 17 years ago and found herself temporarily homeless. She contacted Help the Aged for advice, and was put in touch with the trustees of the Reveley Almshouses in Bushey Village, where she lives to this day. The Almshouses are delightfully characterful one bedroom properties built around a communal courtyard. They date back to 1883 when George Reveley, a local landowner, died and bequeathed a substantial sum for the almshouses. When a house becomes available, it’s advertised in the parish news; applicants write in and are invited to attend an interview. Elaine’s neighbour Lin, 67, who’s lived here for seven years, says, ‘When I moved in, it felt like coming home. I’d been living in a big draughty flat, with the rent going up all the time. Now I’m living with friends.” Both Lin and Elaine enjoy it when the weather gets warmer and the courtyard becomes more sociable. A warden who lives in one of the cottages is always on hand, taking the older residents shopping or organising communal BBQs. “It’s a really good balance of living your own life, and being with people you know. It really works,” says Lin.

Richard cautions those considering a move to a retirement community to consider all options. “It’s possibly not for everyone,” he says. He feels it’s “a big move, but I prefer to be connected, even if I lose a degree of privacy.” His cousin too, is happy with his new home overall, but misses tinkering in his workshop in the garden. Some hobbies, like gardening (since the grounds are professionally landscaped), aren’t necessarily transferable. A bout of recent ill health means that Richard is no longer able to drive, and feels that someone else in his situation might find a tranquil country setting like Cedars a little too remote in comparison to the bustle of a town centre location. “But from my point of view, I feel fortunate to find somewhere so beautiful and I’ve been very happy here.”

Modern retirement living, it seems, is about choice, aesthetics and independence. After all, when have the baby boomer generation settled for anything less?

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