Page last updated at 14:23 GMT, Wednesday, 12 August 2009 15:23 UK

Village fate

Resident on mobility scooter

By Lauren Hardy

Elderly people who can't cope on their own have traditionally opted to see out their years in care homes. But a new alternative is sprouting up in the UK - retirement villages.

Many of us will one day face "going into a home". It can be a terrifying prospect - the loss of independence in exchange for life inside an institution. But a new kind of communal accommodation for the elderly is proving an increasingly popular alternative - retirement villages.

Lovat Fields outside Milton Keynes is one of over 60 retirement villages in the UK, each designed to give their residents the advantages of residential care along with - health-permitting - the lifestyle opportunities of life in the community.

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It looks like a normal residential development - a complex of one- and two-bedroom apartments with car parks and pedestrian walkways. But there are also communal areas and facilities such as a bar, restaurant, hairdressers and gym.

It is also home to extensive medical facilities and there is 24-hour nursing care for those who require it. But residents also have their own front doors and are free to come and go whenever they wish.

Elderly people who can no longer cope in their own house have traditionally faced one of two options - move in with one of their grown-up children, or go into a care home. Care homes, also known as residential homes, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but can be thought of as hotels for the elderly - providing each resident with a rented room, usually en-suite, with communal meals and activities and 24-hour support care.

But the loss of independence can be hard to come to terms with - which is where retirement villages are seeking to plug a gap.

Retirement villages tend to draw people for a variety of reasons. Some want a smaller home after the death of a spouse, some move in as couples because they know they can stay together regardless of the level of care each of them may need.

Finding love

Generally people are planning for old age and when they're less independent. And, like care homes, life in a community appeals more than life alone.

"A retirement village appealed because we were getting older," says Rosie, a resident of Lovat Fields. "We found it hard with the stairs in the house we were living in. When you get older you find that you can't cope like you did when you were younger."

She had been planning to move in with husband Bill. But he died back in 2005 and, when the village opened in 2007 she decided to take the plunge in anyway.

Since then she has found a new friend, 90-year-old Bert - another resident.

"I'd been on my own for the 12 years since my wife died. I hadn't looked at anyone else but, when I moved into the village, Rosie was there - I saw her walking up and down and that was it."


Lovat lovebirds announce their engagement

Lovat Fields is a joint initiative by the council, health trust and charities. Other schemes are private sector or a mixture of both. Potential residents can buy or rent within the development and must also pay service charges. The accommodation also brings some luxury facilities such as a spa pool and technology suite.

But a glossy brochure is bound to sound alarm bells for many elderly people, for whom budget is top of the concerns. On the face of it, retirement villages can appear to be a cheaper option - but that's because of the greater flexibility they offer. But unlike care homes, where food and utility bills tend to be included, residents are left to cover their own costs.

'Home for life'

Many elderly people who end up in long term care residential care are forced to sell their homes to meet those expenses as state support is means tested and available only to those with very limited savings or assets. Retirement villages allow residents to keep their homes while getting the care they need.

Lovat Fields
Rooms with a view - the courtyard in Lovat Field

Currently there are almost 400,000 elderly people in some form of residential care. And that is expected to rise in coming years. Last year pensioners outnumbered children in the UK for the first time. The fastest growing age group in the UK is the over 80s.

A recent government report looked at how these rising costs should be met and suggested future policy should be based on individuals paying for their own accommodation and upkeep but that the additional costs of health care should be shared between the individual and the state.

Retirement villages aim to be a "home for life", catering for those still active and independent, to those needing some assistance or care.

"If you're living in extra care and break your hip, you can upgrade your level of care, and then step it down again as you get better," says Sheila Peace, professor of gerontology with The Open University. "Before, if an elderly person broke their hip and went into residential care, they would have little chance of coming out again."

But there are concerns about how desirable it is to segregate people simply by age.

"It would be very disappointing if more older people were pushed into segregated communities because of a lack of basic requirements," says Help the Aged.

Letting go

"Good housing support services - such as neighbourhood wardens, level pavements, effective street lighting, storage for mobility vehicles, local shops, access to health care, good transport links, social networking and leisure activities - many of the features retirement villages offer should be part of all communities serving the majority of older people."

Bar area
Where would a village be without a pub?

Despite the flexibility, a majority of retirees prefer to stay in their own homes, buying in care services if needed.

There's a sense among many elderly people that any loss of independence tends to take its toll. Brenda, 92, and a keen dancer, believes she has slowed down since moving into the retirement village:

"I've gone down hill a lot. My memory's been awful. That has knocked me for six, that has worried me," she says. "I'm not ready to lean over yet. I expect what will happen to me is that I'll die in my sleep doing the rumba."

And the village setting isn't always suitable for people with advanced mental illness, who need greater support.

The first retirement villages came to the UK about five years ago and there are only about 25,000 older people living in purpose-built communities in the UK, but the number is growing. Lovat Fields restricts applications to those who live in or have strong links to Milton Keynes. But demand is strong and over 2,500 people have already registered their interest in a second village planned for Milton Keynes.

With her new partner Bert, Rosie has no doubts about the benefits.

"We probably wouldn't have found each other if it wasn't for us both moving into the retirement village."

Take part in an Open University survey about the funding of care and accommodation for the elderly.

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