04 May 2021

How can we make retirement housing aspirational and not a sign of crisis?

We have long suspected inconsistencies in the perception of the benefits of retirement housing, due to a lack of public understanding, linked with limited information on the various products and an internal inconsistency of language within the sector.

But we didn’t know for certain what the gap was between public perception and provider offering. Existing research focusses on planning, policy and the economics of later living, and while there is plenty of research around the perception on aging generally, there is little into the public perception of the retirement housing and later living sector.

To gain a better understanding of what the public thinks, we conducted a survey of 2,000 UK adults and mirrored it with a survey of 100 retirement housing providers, and consulted a cross-sector panel of experts to help unpick the resulting data. From this we identified significant misconceptions and discrepancies between public and provider understanding, but more importantly we identified opportunities to change our approach to marketing retirement housing schemes and help in our sector’s ambition to make retirement housing aspirational, rather than a sign of crisis.

Our findings are arranged in distinct themes: perception, benefits understanding, who to target, how to target and language.

We found that the public perception of retirement housing was skewed: almost one in three public respondents think an ‘Old People’s Home’ is synonymous with retirement housing and one in five equate them with nursing homes. What’s more, when asked about the type of people who would benefit from this kind of housing, the public generally reinforced the stereotype of a ‘lonely, single older person with health issues’.

Part of the issue in public understanding is likely down to an inconsistent use of language and terms within the industry. When we offered housing providers an open text box to list descriptors for retirement housing, 10 additional terms were produced; from Extracare and independent living to sheltered housing and retirement community – if we don’t know what to call it, then how could the public possibly know?!

Regarding the benefits of schemes the public were most confident that retirement housing offered a safe and secure place to live (76 per cent), that they are a good alternative to residential care homes (66 per cent) and they offer a desirable place to live (62 per cent). However only 28 per cent of the public agree that retirement housing offers good value for money – with nearly half of respondents stating that they didn’t know.

When asked if they would consider moving into a retirement housing scheme themselves, public respondents were unsure – only eight per cent saying they would ‘definitely’ consider moving in. More than three in four people responded with either ‘maybe’ or ‘don’t know’.

An even greater proportion of public respondents were undecided on whether they would recommend retirement housing schemes to others – with 79 per cent opting for ‘maybe’ or ‘don’t know’, posing the argument that there is also an untapped referral market who could be convinced to recommend retirement housing schemes to friends and family members if they had the right information.

The research also indicated opportunities to increase the knowledge of men and younger people approaching middle age, who statistically showed less understanding of the sector services and benefits. Earlier education of the benefits could lead to adoption later on, as well as influencing the all-important referrer market highlighted in our research.

Retirement housing isn’t suitable for everyone, but it’s clear that there is a need for a centrally-delivered advisory board for older people - and the language used by the advisory board and the sector as a whole should be consistent, positive and benefit-led, so that the public has the information they need to make an informed decision about retirement housing.

For years we’ve seen research paper after research paper banging the drum for suitable, appropriate housing – as it’s been shown to increase happiness and life satisfaction, and decrease costs to the NHS - but if we are going to get more people considering retirement housing schemes we have to make them aspirational and properly understood by our older generation. Retirement housing must become a model of want, not need. We can only drive this demand by showing the public the lifestyle benefits gained from these schemes and through better education, information and marketing.

Download the full white paper: Marketing retirement housing as aspirational and not a sign of crisis

Written by Louise Drew

Louise Drew is a partner and head of building communities at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau.