My (small) garden backs onto homes designed for people over 55.
These compact, purpose-built bungalow homes each have with their own front door and outdoor space. A mix of one or two bedrooms this fold caters for couples, singletons and their carers.
Set in clusters, in quiet cul-de-sacs (with parking) residents of this fold are part of a community that is adjacent to private and social housing developments.
I first met Gertie as she was hanging out her washing.
We used to chat through our shared fence. She was German, but had lived in Canada with her husband George. Because they had no children they moved back to Northern Ireland to be closer to his family, for their old age.
At that time she was probably well into her eighties.
She would say to me: “Don’t get old Nuala, don’t get old…”
What she meant was: it’s no fun to be old – and in poor health.
As an older person, with health issues, she was very aware she couldn’t do things she used to be able to do. Her experience of life was very different from when she was younger.
In winter you spend less time in the garden and so I hadn’t seen Gertie for a while. One day George’s sister called me over to the fence to tell me the sad news that Gertie had died. Not long after that George went into a care home.
Since then there have been many occupants of this home. But, because they never use the garden, I never see them face to face, and I so never get to know them.
Designed to suit people’s needs at a certain stage of life these homes are small, and easy to manage. There are safety features, support staff and, because it is a rental property, the maintenance is all taken care of. That takes away a lot of the hassle of homeownership. There is peace of mind knowing that you will not have to face a huge bill for a new boiler, roof tiles, windows.
With an ageing population there is a huge demand for this type of housing.
I used to wave to a man who lived in the corner house. He had a big, black cat. Then one day there was an ambulance at his door. A few days later the house was cleared. The decorators moved in and within ten days someone else was living there.
That’s the way it works.
As people’s needs change there is a big turnover of occupants because there is always someone who needs (and wants) to live there.
From my bedroom window I used to see one resident quietly tending her plants, or sitting in the sun enjoying the peace and quiet of her back garden. Someone else lives there now. All the climbing plants, so carefully cultivated, have been removed and there is a new shed. And so, the circle of occupancy, and spatial appropriation, begins again.
Gardens can be a burden – or a pleasure.
Not every resident wants, or is able to, look after a garden. For those who are interested it gives them a space to create and enjoy. But, there is more to it than that. Every day, when they are outside in their garden people pass by stop to chat and to admire the garden. Everyone living around here knows these residents – or at least their gardens.
My great-aunt Annie, and Uncle Joe, lived in the same home all their lives – until they had to move into nursing care.
They had no reason, or urge to live anywhere else. Their neighbours may have lived in more modern, more comfortable environments but their attachment to their home was deep. I am sure they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else
On property websites the appeal of an old house, of faded grandeur, usually comes with: overgrown gardens, very large rooms and outdated décor – all in a dubious state of repair. The tell-tale sign lies in the kitchen; a single hard-backed chair (with crocheted rug) beside a very old range. It is obviously the home of an elderly person who spends all their time in one room. But, with some TLC a quality period home will likely be sold, reimagined, modernised and made into a home again, to suit contemporary needs.
Property and auction websites often sell homes marketed as: ‘ in need of some modernisation’. Typically, with these homes, the upkeep stopped many years ago. It does not take long for a house to lapse through stages of untidiness, to neglect, to total disrepair.
In any home the décor can be removed, the layout re-modelled and the appearance completely transformed.
But still, there may be some trace of the people who lived there before. It may be just a tree… a layer of wallpaper… a doodle etched into the woodwork. With an period home there is a certain romance where we look for a human touch to connect past residents (and their stories) to the present. A ‘Blue Plaque’ on a wall, because someone famous once lived there, radically changes how we see that home. It is the home, not just of ‘anybody’, but ‘somebody’.
An ordinary semi, in design, style and layout lacks the caché of a country pile or period home. As the home of an elderly person set in a ’70’s time warp, it must be an estate agent’s least-easy sale.
Too much ‘personality’ in the decor puts people off. It feels too much like someone else still lives there: their taste, their life, their home.
Over our lifetime, most of us will live in many different homes.
A 2017 report by Zoopla indicated that homeowners in UK move once every 23 years – compared to every 8.6 years in more buoyant times. This does not include renters in metropolitan areas where moving home is more frequent.
As we get older our circumstances and needs will change. Our much-loved home may become too difficult to manage – or afford. It is a life-decision that we would hope to be able to make ourselves. In some cases it may be one that is made for us.
“Tiny homes” are an alternative housing model, and way of life for people looking to downsize – before assisted living. Popular in the US, they are built either for semi-retirement, or full retirement, as high-spec homes.
They incorporate an amazingly inventive use of interior space – and usually include outdoor space.
However, the scale and size of a Tiny Home interior space sets a limit to pretty much everything: furniture, guests, belongings, lifestyle.
When you buy a Tiny Home you work closely with the designer so that all the design decisions are tailored for you, your tastes, and way of living . As one couple point out: the secret to living in a Tiny House is that “you have to get in touch with your relationship with stuff’.
There comes a point when we all have to ask ourselves: what possessions do we really need?
What do we actually use?
The residents of the fold beside me rent their homes. Their design decisions will be largely cosmetic – and removable. Each resident will make a difference to the space because they make it their home. From the exterior you can tell those that are engaged with the space – and those who are not.
Old age… it’s not something any of us looks forward to. It seems to suddenly comes upon us.
Some friends recently set about future-proofing their homes. They have re-worked and extended their house so they can live very comfortably on one level. They are thinking ahead in case one, or both, of them cannot manage the stairs.
From 2012 in Housing Assocations in Northern Ireland must adhere to standards based on Lifetime Homes (LTH). The General Needs Design Standards indicates that bungalow-style housing ‘ is wasteful in terms of land use required compared to other forms of development‘. It is only in exceptional circumstances in a mixed-use social housing development that bungalows will be permitted.
Creating apartment dwellings for older people creates a spatialised demographic. With no private outdoor space they will have less opportunity to encounter other types of people. Which is a shame.
A Lifetime Home is designed to accommodate people longterm – as, or if, their physical needs change. A one-size fits does not suit all, of every size, at every stage of life. I know of people who have been forced to pay to remove specific features ( ie. low bath) – unbeknownst to the Housing Association.
We make our homes in places and spaces designed by other people, and previously lived in by others.
The is my home – but only for a short time. Some day, it will be someone else’s home.