Property: Don't fear the retirement home

There's plenty of choice and no bossy wardens, writes Felicity Cannell

THE BIGGEST problem facing retirement home developers is the image that such accommodation conjures up: "Waiting for God", as the television sitcom so tactfully puts it.

For most of us, when we are 17 life is eternal. At 70 we still like to hope it is. We don't want to confront the need to find somewhere suitable to spend our twilight years. A recent survey found that friends and relatives are far more concerned about such accommodation than the elderly themselves.

For many older people, the issue smacks of day rooms, starched bossy wardens and a total loss of independence. The reality is often very different.

Hanover Housing Association (HHA), the largest provider of rental retirement accommodation, has researched public attitudes towards sheltered housing. The biggest problem which became apparent was the lack of information about what is available and how to find it.

This is where families can help. Not by making decisions for elderly relatives, but simply by presenting the options. McCarthy & Stone, currently the country's biggest retirement homes builder, aims a significant part of marketing at younger relatives of potential customers.

"Relatives and friends are often more aware of the needs of older people, and of the options available, and they have an important part to play in gathering information and providing help in the process of moving," says John Gatward, group chief executive of Hanover Housing.

When Olive Iller was widowed at the age of 88, her son suggested she move nearer to him. After 22 years in the family home she decided that she could not continue to live there. "The house was too big and it had a huge garden," says Mrs Iller. "I was always working and because I have a bad back, I had to get someone to help with the gardening." Her son found a McCarthy & Stone development in Muswell Hill, London, and under a part-exchange scheme she moved in a month later.

"This was the only flat I looked at," she says. "It is on the ground floor so I have a bit of garden and greenery to look at." A house manager lives on the premises. Careline, a personal security system, is fitted throughout the building with access to a 24-hour emergency service.

McCarthy & Stone bought her property, a three-bed detached house, directly from her. "The scheme worked very well for me," says Mrs Iller. "I didn't want strangers tramping around my house. And if you get caught in a house- buying chain you can have real problems." For this reason part-exchange continues to be popular.

As with the property market in general, the retirement home market is booming and demand outstrips supply, particularly with the steady rise in the number of over-65s in the population. There are around 90,000 such homes in the UK but developers and builders have often found it hard going in this area. Retirement homes are the end of the buying chain, so sales can be troublesome. Now that potential buyers can sell their own homes more easily, developers are steadily filling the shortfall.

Help the Aged Retirement Property Service, launched last year, has provided a vital link between buyers and sellers. It is, in effect, a full estate agency service with a nationwide database of properties, but it offers independent advice and can also be used in conjunction with any high- street agent.

Sheltered Housing Services, an independent company, produces a quarterly listing of available homes to subscribers for pounds 7.50 a year. The service includes arrangements to view and advice on the sale of the buyer's own property.

If renting is preferred, apart from HHA, the Elderly Accommodation Council will do its best to match inquirers with accommodation

"Very sheltered living" is an option when on-site care is needed. Bovis Retirement Homes shuns the word "warden", stressing that it provides housing with "carers". It has 23 schemes for people with some sort of frailty. Service charges of around pounds 60 a week cover both management and care.

Retirement developments, for both purchase and rent, range from purpose- built to listed conversions, and from modest bungalows with no on-site care to warden-assisted apartments. There are also luxury developments with pools and golf courses at prices well into six figures.

Design and ergonomics are improving. The design book Homes for the Third Age is for all those building and running sheltered housing. "Good design can bring about marked improvements in the quality of life of older people," it says.

When you consider a particular development, Kate McGregor of Help the Aged says, it is vital to keep asking questions and to be satisfied with the answers. Check out the management - do they have a good track record? Ask for a breakdown of service charges and see how they have risen over the years. For a new development compare charges with other schemes. Talk to residents living there. If possible - and many developments will do this - arrange to spend the night or at least an afternoon on site. And if the home is in a favourite summer holiday place, try a winter holiday there first. It may be rather different.

"And don't underestimate how emotional it will be for elderly parents," says Ms McGregor. "Leaving the family home will be traumatic. Leave them plenty of time to decide what they will do."

q Contacts: Hanover Housing Association, 01784 438361; McCarthy & Stone, 0800 919132; Elderly Accommodation Council, 0181 742 1182; Help the Aged helpline, 0800 592605; Sheltered Housing Service, 0181 997 9313. 'Homes for the Third Age' by David Robson and Anne-Marie Nicholson is available from HHA.

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