Why retirement villages are building in popularity

Judi Gerrard sweeps her mobility scooter into the bustling coffee shop at the Lovat Fields retirement village in Milton Keynes. "Nobody needs to be lonely here," she declares. "If you have problems, there's always someone to help you, someone to talk to."

Gerrard is something of a celebrity resident of Lovat Fields, home to 340 older people. A flamboyant 69-year-old with a background on the stage, she has a regular guest slot on local radio. ExtraCare, the charity that runs the development, could hardly wish for a better advocate. But then again, its retirement villages are so popular it scarcely needs the promotion.

Shenley Wood, a second development by the charity in Milton Keynes, opened its first phase last Friday with 100 of the 109 apartments pre-sold (others are for let). Most of the second phase, due to open in the autumn, is reserved. A second village will open in Birmingham next year, with a third following in 2014 and two more thereafter. "We can pretty much choose the areas where we want to work," says Nick Abbey, the charity's chief executive.

Many care professionals are sniffy about village communities, whether they cater for older people or for those with disabilities. The concept runs counter to the principles of social integration and community care, which have been prevailing tenets for almost 50 years. And the US version of the retirement community – year-round sunshine and endless golf on vast estates behind security fences – has done the image no favours in Britain.

But the market says different. Demand for properties in UK retirement villages is booming. Commercial operator Lifecare Residences is building a luxury version opposite Battersea Park, in south London, and has already sold 25 of the 112 apartments and penthouses off-plan for an average £1m each. There will be a leisure complex, cinema, concierge and care services including a "boutique nursing home".

Rob Greig, a leading exponent of inclusive care policy and practice, accepts that older people may have good reason to opt for a village community on grounds of lifestyle and commonality of interest. But he balks at extending the argument to younger disabled people.

Research has shown that village communities for disabled people are good for ensuring safety, freedom from harassment and "caring with a capital c", says Greig, chief executive of the National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi). But they are not good for promoting opportunities, relationships and lifestyle changes.

This is not a view shared by Chris McSharry, chief executive of the Hesley Group, which runs Hesley Village, a community of about 70 adults with severe learning disabilities, complex needs and challenging behaviour on a 55-acre rural site near Doncaster. He argues that the seclusion of the village offers its profoundly disabled residents – who stay on average six years – the safe space they need to learn basic life skills that will enable them to go on to live in the community.

McSharry tells the story of one young resident who would spend all his time in his room, naked and shrouded in a duvet. However, he liked Coca-Cola. Gradually, he was persuaded to accompany his support workers on a daily visit to the village's shop to buy a bottle. Eventually, he got the confidence to make the visit on his own. "That story illustrates it for me," says McSharry. "It's about giving people the wherewithal and confidence to go to the shop and go home again. It's about taking risks, but about keeping the risk to a minimum."

Hesley is laid out as a real village, with a bistro, hairdresser, cashpoint, village hall and even a pelican crossing on the high street. Because of the level of residents' disabilities, they typically each have two support workers with them during the day.

Among the staff are 10 behavioural analysts, more than 10% of all such qualified specialists in the UK, whose work underpins Hesley's unapologetically high-cost approach. Councils pay around £4,000 a week for each village resident, though fees have been frozen for three years.

Hesley Group is sensitive to criticism that residents are cut off from the wider world. It pays for a local bus service to come to the village; it has moved a craft shop selling residents' work to a nearby town; and it has launched art and craft projects with a local school and Doncaster children's services. The group is also developing supported living schemes in the community. Within five years, it expects that one in four of the people it works with will live in the community.

ExtraCare, too, is responding to pressure to open its villages to the world outside. Birmingham council wants the city's new villages to be "community hubs", welcoming non-residents to share facilities and activities, and is commissioning ExtraCare to run outreach services to support older people living in the community. The village opening in Birmingham next year, Pannel Croft in the Newtown district, where the population is 55% black and minority ethnic, will prove a test of a model that is often seen as middle class. Most of the 180 apartments will be for rent, with just 30 for shared ownership and none for outright leasehold sale, and the facilities will be tailored to a multi-ethnic clientele.

Back at Lovat Fields, Gerrard takes great pride in showing off the bar, ballroom, and a busy woodwork shop. "I do go out and do my shopping," she says, "but I've no desire to get away from here. This place has changed my life."


Sourced from The Guardian, 28th February 2012.