Encouraging Elderly People to Live Independent Lives: Bad Idea?

I discern that ‘enabling senior citizens to live independent lives’ is seen as a desirable social/medical objective. In England this normally means living in their ‘own home’. But this strikes me as an idea that should be scrutinised more carefully. The reasons for my opinion can be summed up with just one word – loneliness. I live in a substantial house in Edgbaston. In a scenario where my wife, Vicky, were to die and I was to retire, I would go instantly from a busy, satisfied and fulfilled life to a completely vacuous state. Add a bit of osteoarthritis sufficient to stop me doing sport and I would rattle around in my house waiting for the phone to ring… No wonder there is a veritable iceberg of depression in elderly people.[1] Contrast this with people who move into something like a ‘retirement village’. My Aunt had to leave Zimbabwe when Robert Mugabe confiscated white-owned lands. She now lives in Whiteley Village in Cobham, Surrey – sheltered housing for elderly people. She has immense social capital, forming easy ongoing friendships, supporting neighbours through illnesses, and attending her allotment. Despite being dispossessed, she is anything but depressed, and people will rally around her if she gets ill, as she has rallied to support others. So I think we should question this idea that the elderly should be encouraged to live independently. Of course I am not saying that elderly people should be frog-marched out of their homes and into an institution. People who already live in tight communities may be able to get all the social contact they need. But for many others, staying in the home where they have lived their working lives risks social isolation. It is very difficult to collect valid data on this point. By the time people reach residential communities they are often already isolated, depressed and withdrawn, and find it hard to forge new relationships.[2] [3] The answer may be to promote, build and encourage use of retirement villages that are common in North America and South Africa, and a rare example of which my aunt has been lucky to find in England. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to test this theory. People who select such a community are likely to come from the more gregarious end of the spectrum, whereas few people would volunteer to participate in RCTs. Nevertheless, up to 12% of people aged over 65 live in retirement villages in some parts of the USA, versus 5.5% in New Zealand, and 0.5% in the UK.[4] There are only 20,000 such properties in the UK, versus 160,000 in Australia.[5] I think public policy should encourage public and private development of such facilities in our country.

–Richard Lilford, Director of CLAHRC WM

[1] Volkert J, Schulz H, Härter M, Wlodarczyk O, Andreas S. The prevalence of mental disorders in older people in Western countries – a meta-analysis. Ageing Res Rev. 2013; 12(1): 339-53.
[2] van Schaik DJF, et al. Preventing depression in homes for older adults: are effects sustained over 2 years? Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2014; 29: 191-7.
[3] Adams KB, Sanders S. Auth EA. Loneliness and depression in independent living retirement communities: risk and resilience factors. Ageing Ment Health. 2004; 8(6): 475-85.
[4] Kollewe J. Retirement villages: grandma’s ghetto or country club? The Guardian. 2012 Jan 15. Available online.
[5] Triggle N. Are retirement villages the answer for the ageing population? BBC News Online. 2012 May 17. Available online.


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