Why it's in all our interests to reinvent the almshouse after 1,000 years

Orestad retirement home, Copenhagen, designed by JJW Arkitekter

While the last decade has seen significant progress in the quality and variety of housing for older people, there is still some way to go

We hear a lot about the fact that the UK housing market needs to respond to changing lifestyles – more build to rent, shared living, micro-homes and so on. Almost all of this is focused on young people, implying that they are the only group whose living patterns evolve.

That’s always been the assumption. England’s first almshouse was built in 936. For almost 1,000 years, these carefully crafted buildings remained the only decent form of housing for “older people” (that meaningless phrase that we all use to describe anyone a decade or so older than we are) who lacked the means to support themselves. Charming though they were (and many still are) the implication is that “old people” have always been “all the same”.

Sheltered housing didn’t appear until the second half of the last century. Early models were mainly council-built, but by the mid-Seventies the need for a private-sector equivalent was identified. Soon, McCarthy & Stone was everywhere. But despite latent demand and the quality bar set by the almshouse precedent, no one seemed to think that design mattered. Slightly more thought was given to the design of extra-care housing (a re-branding of “very sheltered”) that came on the scene in the 1990s, but they were easily mistaken for three-star hotels.

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