Overview of Retirement Communities

There is no single definition of a ‘Retirement Community’, but in general they combine housing for older people with tailored support services. Residents own or rent self-contained accommodation, with 24-hour on-site staff, communal facilities (e.g. dining and leisure facilities), and optional care and support as needed.

Retirement Communities sit in between traditional retirement or sheltered housing (which has less extensive staffing and leisure facilities) and care homes. They may also be referred to as retirement villages, extra care housing, housing-with-care, assisted living, close care apartments, or independent living settings.

The Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO) is the main body representing the Retirement Community sector in the UK.

According to ARCO:

  • There are currently around 70,000 housing with care units in the UK, providing homes for just over 90,000 older people.
  • The sector is emerging and is currently much smaller than the traditional retirement housing sector without onsite care and support, which has around 440,000 units, and care home beds, which stand at around 456,000. 
  • There is an uneven distribution across market segments, with 66% of UK Retirement Community properties available for affordable or social rent. A further 10% are for shared ownership, 1% for middle market rent, 15% for middle market purchase, 8% for high-end purchase and none for high-end rent.
  • Only 0.6% of over-65s currently have the opportunity to live in housing with care in the UK, compared to at least 5-6% in New Zealand, Australia, and the US. [Key Sector Facts]

Housing-with-care is owned and run by a range of providers, including local authorities, housing associations, charities (such as the Abbeyfield Society), and private companies.

People’s housing needs often change as they grow older. The right housing can keep older people safe and healthy, support them to live independently, and reduce costs for health and social care services. Enabling older people to move to more suitable housing, when they want to, can also help to free up larger homes for use by families. A supportive local community and social networks are also recognised as important in supporting older people, for example, by reducing loneliness.

Covid-19 impacts on Retirement Communities

Retirement community operators and residents have been subject to coronavirus (Covid-19) legislation and Government guidance throughout the pandemic. The ARCO website provides the latest Guidance and information on Covid-19 for retirement community operators.

A study funded by the Dunhill Medical Trust, undertaken by St Monica Trust and supported by the Housing LIN (Learning and Improvement Network) examined the Retirement Village and Extra Care Housing in England: Operators’ experience during the COVID-19 pandemic (April 2021). Key findings include:

  • The efficacy of Retirement Village (RV) and Extra Care Housing (ECH) operators’ response to the pandemic was evident from the positive feedback, overall positive experiences of residents, and the level of protection afforded to them; resident COVID-19 death rates were lower than expected when compared to people of similar ages residing in the wider community.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has exerted a huge strain on operators. In common with care homes, many of the major operational pressures and challenges they faced related to anxiety, stress, numbers of staff off work self-isolating or shielding, staff burnout, staff shortages, managing expectations, lack of availability of PPE, and striving to protect health and well-being. The volume of government rule and guidance changes necessitated continuous decision-making and adaptations to policies, procedures and practice.
  • The costs and losses incurred due to the pandemic have outweighed any savings or funding received, and many costs are still ongoing. This will have led to tough business conditions and difficult decisions being made such as suspending recruitment to non-frontline roles and making staff redundant. Nearly 70% of operators said they had not received any financial support.
  • There are major concerns for operators going forward regarding resident and staff well-being, loss of revenue and other financial pressures. There is also concern regarding how long the vaccines were going to afford protection, how many will agree to be vaccinated, and how difficult it will be to maintain infection control in the event of premature community perception of decreased risk.

Shortage of specialist housing for older people

  • The UK’s population is ageing; this is primarily driven by improvements in life expectancy and declining fertility. There is a shortage of accessible and specialist housing for older people in both the private and social sectors. In March 2021, a broad coalition of older people’s representatives, policymakers, private sector and civil society leaders, wrote an open letter to the Prime Ministercalling for an increase in the supply of housing-with-care options in the UK.
  • The housing-with-care sector has called for the creation of a cross-government Housing-with-Care Task Force to accelerate the growth of the sector. The sector would like to see 250,000 people living in housing-with-care by 2030. ARCO has identified three key policy barriers to expansion:
  • Sector-specific legislation: The lack of sector-specific legislation for housing-with-care results in less protection for consumers and uncertainty for operators. ARCO recommends that the Law Commission’s proposals for sector-specific legislation on fees and regulation are implemented. In addition, given that the leasehold system is not ideally suited to the expansion of housing-with-care, specific tenure models need to be developed which focus on services and operation.
  • Clarity in the planning system: It is currently much harder to build housing-with-care than care homes due to a lack of definition in the planning system. This needs to change through clear definition and categorisation of housing-with-care.
  • Funding options for affordable housing-with-care provision: While the majority of customers in the housing-with-care sector will have access to housing equity to be able to fund their move into a housing-with-care community, it is essential that the model remains an option suitable for all older people, regardless of their means or housing wealth.  
  • Commentators have called for a national strategy on housing for older people in England to provide a strategic vision and ensure housing, health and social care policies are joined up. (Wales, Scotland and Ireland already have long-term strategies in place).

Parliamentary material

Select Committee reports

House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee Housing for older people: Second Report of Session 2017–19, HC 370, 9 February 2018

Government Response: Housing for older people, CM 9692, September 2018

Early Day Motions

Role of housing-with-care settings

605 (session 2019-21)

15 Jun 2020

Bob Blackman

That this House recognises the important role which housing-with-care settings such as extra care and retirement villages play in the social care system and the particular contribution those settings have made to protecting the health and well-being of their residents during the coronavirus crisis and towards reducing strain on the NHS and care homes; notes the need for a significant expansion of housing-with-care provision for older people; and further notes how such an expansion would help the UK better manage future similar health crises; and calls on the Government to promote measures which will ensure the expansion of that sector.

Parliamentary Questions

Sheltered Housing

28 Apr 2021 | 184492

Asked by: Cameron, Dr Lisa

To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, whether his Department plans to include housing with care accommodation as part of the Government’s proposals for senior housing.

Answering member: Christopher Pincher | Department: Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)

Offering older people a better choice of accommodation to suit their changing needs can help them live independently for longer and feel more connected to their communities. Housing with support and care plays a vital role in enabling older people to live independently, as well as delivering wider benefits to society.

We are investing over £12 billion in affordable housing over 5 years, the largest investment in affordable housing in a decade. This includes the new £11.5 billion Affordable Homes Programme, where 10 per cent of delivery over the course of the programme will be used to increase the supply of much needed specialist, supported and retirement housing, including housing with care for older people. In addition, the Department of Health and Social Care continue to subsidise new supply of specialist housing for older and disabled people through the Care and Support Specialised Housing (CASSH) Fund.

We are working closely with the sector and across government to look at how we can further support growth and diversity of older people’s housing. This includes considering the merits of different engagement and delivery models, including housing with care accommodation.

Sheltered Housing

01 Mar 2021 | 155496

Asked by: Alexander Stafford

To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, what steps the Government is taking to help ensure the provision of retirement and extra care housing across all tenures as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased.

Answering member: Christopher Pincher | Department: MHCLG

I agree that the growth of this sector is important for meeting the needs of the aging population and supporting our housing supply objectives. We are investing over £12 billion in affordable housing over 5 years, the largest investment in affordable housing in a decade. This includes the new £11.5 billion Affordable Homes Programme, where 10 per cent of delivery will be used to increase the supply of much needed specialist or supported housing.

In our revised National Planning Policy Framework, published in July 2018, we set out that authorities should assess the types of specialist housing needed for older and disabled people in their areas and reflect this in their planning policies. We followed this up by publishing Planning Practice Guidance in June 2019, which assists councils in putting policies in the National Planning Policy Framework in place.

We are continuing to work closely with the sector to look at how we can further support its growth.

Care Homes: Coronavirus

15 Jun 2020 | HL4895

Asked by: Lord Alton of Liverpool | Party: Crossbench

Her Majesty’s Government what steps they took in response to the advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies following its meeting on 10 March to ensure that “special policy consideration be given to care homes and various types of retirement communities” and that a specific action plan for social care was in place by mid-April.; to what timescale they implemented their response; and what assessment they have made of the length of time taken to respond to that recommendation.

Answering member: Lord Bethell | Department: Department of Health and Social Care

Since the start of this outbreak we have been working closely with the sector and public health experts to put in place guidance and support for adult social care based on the latest domestic and international evidence, including that brought together by Public Health England and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and drawing on the insights of care providers

In February, the first guidance for the sector was published. In March we announced £1.6 billion funding for local government and £1.3 billion to go to the National Health Service and social care for discharge support. In April we announced a further £1.6 billion for local government and published our detailed Adult Social Care Action Plan on 15 April. In May we announced an additional £600 million to support care home providers through a new Adult Social Care Infection Control Fund and our care home support package,

Alongside the care home support package, we have also published detailed guidance for home care providers to support them to deliver care safely and effectively during the pandemic. This will be relevant to retirement community settings where care is provided.

Further reading

Commons Library briefing papers:

Which, The pros and cons of retirement villages, 21 April 2021

ARCO, The Housing with Care Grey Paper, 22 March 2021

Age UK, Factsheet 64: Specialist housing for older people, November 2020

ARCO and CCN, Planning for Retirement: How Retirement Communities can help meet the needs of our ageing population, June 2020

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