/ Home & Energy

Why aren’t our homes suitable for older or disabled people?

The Centre for Ageing Better believes it’s time to take action for better homes. Our guest explains why it wants to see changes.

This is a guest post by Louise Ansari. All views expressed are Louise’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Fewer than one in ten homes in England are suitable for older or disabled people to visit, never mind live in, but we have the chance to change this.

Homes are central to our health and wellbeing, and our population is undergoing a massive age shift. Increasing numbers of us are living into our 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond. In less than 20 years, one in four of us will be over 65 – equating to around 17 million people.

While poorer health as we age isn’t inevitable, one in five adults aged 65-69 need help with one or more activities of daily living (such as bathing, cooking or using the toilet).

By the time people reach their 80s, this figure rises to more than one in two of us. But as it stands, only one new accessible home is planned for every fifteen people over 65 by 2030.

Which? Guide: How to adapt your home as you get older

Not only will this affect millions of us now and in the future as we get older, but there are many disabled people living in homes that do not meet their needs – it’s estimated that around 400,000 wheelchair users currently live in a home that is neither accessible nor adapted.

What needs to change?

Our solution is simple: change building regulations to require all new homes to be built to the ‘accessible and adaptable’ standard or M4 (2) as a minimum.

This will create a world of difference for the millions of us who find, or will find, it hard to move around our homes – ensuring a step free entrance, more space to move in all areas of the home, and features that make the home easily adaptable to our changing needs.

All without making our homes look any different or costing much more.

How Ageing Better is taking action

The Centre for Ageing Better is calling for urgent action to make this happen, as part of the Housing Made for Everyone (HoME) coalition of ten charities and housing organisations.

The government is seeking views now on options to raise standards.

If you’d like to support us, please add your voice and tell the government that change is needed to build the right homes for the future – you can respond via an online survey using this simple guide to aid your response (Word doc download).

This was a guest post by Louise Ansari. All views expressed were Louise’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Comments

Most elderly people – the majority of those needing such facilities – will be living in existing family homes and I guess will be reluctant to leave to purchase a new home. So I would put the emphasis on adapting existing properties where these facilities are needed. Where necessary this can be done by properly funding the disabled facilities grant system. This can fund changes to a property such as ramps and door widening, accessible bathing facilities, home lift that are tailored to the specific needs of the householder.

At the same time we need an active interest in advising residents on what adaptations would benefit them and how they could be achieved. This should be by a non-commercial independent organisation and, I would suggest free. Probably best run by the local authority who should also keep a list of approved contractors to do such work.

Building new properties suitable for adaptation to future needs will be a very slow process and particularly when so many are small and are flats. It seems sensible to ensure doorways are wide enough to accept a wheelchair, but this can have ramifications on corridor widths and the size of rooms such as bathrooms. Not a bad thing as I believe much new housing has become too cramped.
Option M4(2) seems a sensible standard for all new housing.

One thing I’ve noticed is how far too many new homes are far too insecure and far too easy to violate and break in to which needs to seriously change, as does building them right next to heavy flooding rivers and only a few feet above them which is a deadly serious major mistake, it’s not the developers who have to live in them, or those who grant permission for them. And corridors also need to be wide enough for the bigger mobility scooters as well as wheelchairs, and some wheelchairs are as large as the bigger scooters so that needs to be provided for as well. And better security and flood prevention etc. And some disabled folk are far more vulnerable so security should be a priority in disabled folk’s homes.

Mark S. says:
13 November 2020

How many times do I have to shout this, disability is NOT confined to white sticks and wheelchairs! I’m absolutely SICK and TIRED of folk born like me with severe selective noise sensitivity and extreme HEAT intolerance, both of which can absolutely DESTROY an entire life. I should know as I’ve been forced to live with BOTH for nearly 60 years and a whole lot more besides all combining together to utterly destroy my entire life. Just why is there NO recognition of such conditions as disabilities which they certainly ARE and why is there still nothing but such outrageous contempt and gross condescension against people suffering such appalling life destroying conditions and more and more appalling barriers and EXclusion being put in place all the time and no-one ever wants to know about it, not even the current disability minister which infuriates me. IF homes are to be built for disabled folk then we need more seriously sound proof homes for people who like me extreme misophonia which IS a MAJOR disability and this MUST be recognised as must severe HEAT intolerance which is an absolutely BRUTAL crushing, crippling and sometimes paralysing condition, especially in the brutal HOT summer heatwaves which are only selfishly glorified by selfish born-free easy-lifers in the media which is totally unacceptable, it’s just like sticking two FAT fingers up at all disabled folk everywhere together with FAT gluttonous gloating. There’s all manner of respect these days for those with visible conditions but only a total reversal of attitudes to anyone with life ruining HIDDEN conditions which are no fault of their own yet far too many still wrongly blame the victim which is totally WRONG and must change. Yet there’s all manner of sympathy all over for those who are born healthy but CHOOSE to ruin their own lives by getting themselves hooked on drink, drugs or gambling etc. Disability is NOT all “white sticks and wheelchairs”.

I am sorry to hear of your disabilities Mark. Would triple glazing be effective enough in reducing outside noise? Would air conditioning deal with the heat problem? Grants are available from local authorities – whether they have the money I don’t know – but would these cover the disabilities you complain of?

Multiple glazing helps a bit, a friend of mine has triple glazing. But what we need is the government and all our authorities and service providers, both public and private, to properly recognise those like me as disabled and then take the appropriate action, instead of treating such people with such appalling contempt and by doing so only perpetuate society’s dreadfully negative and contemptuous attitudes. What we need is more homes specifically built with soundproofing built in all round and I know that’s expensive, but can’t the national lottery fund such projects? or is that private now? Far too many new homes are still being built as terraced so that all manner of totally intolerable noise comes pouring through from next door like their TV’s, radio’s, stereo’s and banging doors and their raucous exuberance etc. which is why some new homes need to be built detached and they don’t need to be lavish, just built with sensible design features built in, like double skin walls with soundproofing in between for instance as well as multiple glazing. And I see people almost everyday who are obviously severely disabled with obvious life ruining conditions, obvious to me that is, but for most not so obvious because of the ongoing stigma around such conditions. Instead there’s far too much outrageous contempt and blaming the victims. And a lot of such appalling conditions are inherited or can be caused by dodgy unsafe food which is another deadly serious reason why we absolutely MUST keep our strict food safety controls. And of course some such appalling life destroying problems can be caused by selfish mothers drinking to excess and/or smoking and taking dodgy drugs while pregnant but that’s another subject.

In the 1970s I laughed at the new detached houses that were being built close together but at least it avoids noise through party walls. I rented a flat temporarily when I changed my job and well remember a noisy neighbour who was fond of loud music.

Even when I was young I found it difficult to concentrate if there was background noise, especially when studying in the university as a student. I have a great deal of sympathy for those like Crusader who have to put up with noise.

I thought there were regulations with regard to level access, minimum door widths, ground floor toilets, and the position of sockets and switches in new homes. We bought a new home in 2012 and it had all these features.

It would neither be practical nor economical to build all new residential properties suitably equipped to suit all disability needs but adaptation is usually possible and, as Malcolm has said, the relevant local social services authority should attend to this. This came about with the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. It is possible that a number of serious conditions fall outside the scope of the current legal framework and the headline categories of assistance might not be sufficiently inclusive to place a duty [rather than just a power] on local authorities to act. Nevertheless, the social services authority should recognise the need for special or complex arrangements in particular cases and do its best to meet them.

It is an unfortunate truth that people with rare or exceptional disabilities do get pushed to the margins as the money available is inadequate. The government has allowed councils with social services responsibilities to raise an extra amount [a precept] via the council tax for adult social care but this seems to get soaked up by the additional demands of an ageing population and the increasing costs of providing for them either in their own homes or in care homes. Councils are also having to meet higher levels of funding for the safe care and secure protection of children and young persons. I expect there are very limited opportunities to switch money around between these categories.

It is important that all new homes meet suitable minimum standards for the most prevalent needs, such as access, mobility, communication, security, temperature, lighting and sanitation. There is no doubt a case for extending the scope and making better provision but I believe the housebuilders would baulk at any extra expenditure on a generalised basis. So any special or personalised provision would have to be funded separately.

There are many charities that help with regard to some of the less common physical or visible disabilities and provision is often made by local authorities for quite expensive alterations and adaptations, but Mark is right to draw attention to the needs of people experiencing invisible or largely unknown conditions. There are probably few specialists in some fields with enough experience to deal with special or complex needs. It is important so far as possible that people should be enabled to live within their community if they so choose and if it is practicable rather than be forced to enter an institution, but in some cases that might be unavoidable.

I am sure we would all like to find the perfect answer to problems like the suitability of new homes but in the end it comes down to money, and to the overall sentiments of society which are not always rational or equitable. I don’t know how we change that.

Interestingly (perhaps 🙂 ) a proposed local development of a pair of semi-detached houses has a condition being imposed, if permission is granted, of a specified degree of noise reduction from traffic on a fairly lightly used 30m/h rural road some 14m away. I haven’t come across this before.

I agree about the poor sound proofing between joined houses, through walls, floors and roof voids. Difficult to remedy if it is poor. I do not know what current building regulations require but there should be minimum standards of sound proofing.

I am sure there are, Malcolm, but they probably would not be effective for those with exceptionally high hearing sensitivity for whom only a well-separated detached property would meet the need [or wearing noise-cancelling headphones at all times].

Just in case anyone’s wondering, I am Mark S. but now known as crusader since I signed up. Unfortunately wearing headphones is just not practical all the time, they get in the way and you can’t wear them in bed or when washing etc. or if you need to use a phone. And I meant to include dogs in my previous comment but I forgot and now the edit button is somehow being withheld, just like so many things which are so persistently and ruthlessly withheld from me all the time so lockdown hardly makes any difference to me. And where I live there’s an absolutely paranoid psychopathic maniac dog kept out in the back yard a few doors down so I have to have loud amplified white noise available on demand by remote control and if I need to do any work outside in the yard then I have to use a very loud 100 watt white noise machine which I built myself and of course needless to say one neighbour across the road from me has been mouthing off at me about it but he won’t complain about the criminally insane dogs, oh no, no-one ever does, all anyone ever cares about is whatever trumped-up charge they can pin on me and they’re always so meticulously tuned in to me and whatever I do but are somehow totally immune to anyone else’s noise which infuriates me. And I only use my machine when I have to and only in the daytime and only after 9 am and before 6 pm, never in unsociable hours and it makes no more noise than the navvies with their compressors and pneumatic drills etc. and no-one picks on them. But the dogs are out there all manner of early and late hours and dogs have far more respect these days than anyone like me which also absolutely infuriates me, people come before filthy menacing dogs, especially severely disabled folk with utterly ruined lives and it’s always those like me who are made to suffer the worst and all manner of stuff is being put in place to only maximise that appalling suffering and EXclusion and no-one ever wants to know, especially those in power and control and that has to change. The current disability minister is not fit for the job and should be replaced by someone far more open minded.

Good sound insulation is surprisingly easy and cheap to achieve, but not so simple if you need to retro-fit. Just using a double layer of plasterboard (c. £7 per sheet) on a stud wall can reduce noise transmission by about 9dB – perceived as a 45% noise reduction. It’s not so much the extra thickness, but the near doubling of the wall mass that reduces the sound transmission. Why more DIYers don’t employ this trick, I don’t know. Commercial housebuilders are just tight and would rather waste money on carpets and furnishings for the showhome.

More effective solutions require rooms to be de-coupled with a small gap or break, e.g. staggered wall studs or steel handers and fibreglass infill, so that direct sound transmission is reduced and sound through the void is muffled. Again, the materials are cheap if you can do it yourself or as part of a new build, but if a room is small to begin with, you probably can’t afford to lose the space.

That is very encouraging. I suspect that moving radiators could be challenging for some DIYers.

You are correct @wavechange! But then radiators are most often installed on outside walls under windows. The exterior wall itself is not a major source of noise compared to the window openings and increasing the wall thickness requires the window reveals to be refinished. Probably not worth doing.

The double plasterboard/double wall works best to reduce internal noise, e.g. between adjacent bedrooms and bathrooms, or party walls It is really important to seal any air gaps around the edges, electrical wall plates, skirting boards, and so on, but ordinary acrylic decorator filler is fine.

I only mention this because some “specialist” firms seem to charge excessive amounts for sound-deadening pads, soundproofing paint (yeah, right!), etc., when all you really need can be found at your local DIY shed or builders merchant, at much less cost.

Karen Fitzsimons says:
14 November 2020

Hi Crusader
I understand the disability that extreme sensory processing difficulties can bring. Nowadays children are more likely to be given accommodations for such sensitivities. They may also be further assessed for autism spectrum disorders/neurodiversity as extreme sensory sensitivities and autism go hand in hand. Lots of adults are getting a late diagnosis these days and can then access some (not many) services/accommodations. A screening in North Carolina and N Ireland came up with a figure that @20% of the population have an autism spectrum disorder. It’s not just the ”rainman”/media image portrayed. It is usually characterised by extreme sensory sensitivities/ communication differences eg social activities may not be important, may be highly skilled with very focussed interests and no desire for smalltalk or chatting about other things/ preference for things done in a routine/ may be highly organised or the extreme opposite where executive functioning/planning is difficult. I could be of course completely in the wrong but I know lots of adults in highly skilled technical jobs who received a late diagnosis and it helped reframe a lot about their lives.

Crusader says:
14 November 2020

You’re not wrong about difficulty in organising stuff. I have absolutely MAJOR problems trying to do anything, no matter how trivial, in anything like an organised manner, and usually fail appallingly because my useless head just won’t work and vital things which would be so obvious to the majority are far too often withheld from me until it’s far too late and the dwp have such a major problem understanding and accepting such a thing. They still think disability is all white sticks and wheelchairs, and depression and anxiety etc. and severe cognitive disorders etc. but have absolutely no understanding of anyone like me and instead just ignorantly and persistently contradict me. Since when did they know my life better than I do?! So I took them to tribunal and thrashed them and humiliated their representative in front of the tribunal judge and shut him up.

Crusader says:
16 November 2020

Unfortunately really effective soundproofing is not that simple, and it’s not just radiators that might get in the way. With some terraced houses like mine there’s also the fireplace and chimney breast at the party wall which is impractical to remove, and ordinary plasterboard and insulation etc. doesn’t really work, it needs specialist materials and they must be very professionally fitted and the entire party wall has to be done, right up to the apex of the roof, and in between floors and ceilings and in some homes right down below the floor as well. And that’s hugely expensive and impractical if the chimney breasts are on that side, and even if you could do the whole job it would only achieve some degree of reduction of noise, and some noises are far more difficult to block out than others. And I don’t think anything will drown out anyone slamming heavy doors or really loud booming dogs or pounding bass, especially if you’ve got a rock band practicing next door with all their big amplifiers. And in some terraces there’s no complete wall between roof spaces. So if a home is going to be properly sound proof it really needs to be detached and specially designed and built for it.

“Our solution is simple: change building regulations to require all new homes to be built to the ‘accessible and adaptable’ standard or M4 (2) as a minimum.”

The default M4(1) standard is there for a reason. It enables housing developments in otherwise unusable locations, where space might be at a premium, or the site is difficult to access (e.g. sloping). It is well within the power of local planning authorities to require compliance with M4(2) or M4(3) standards. The problem is they do not.

The UK house-building industry and local planning authorities are in a constant battle over housing development. Pressure for higher housing densities is because it is more profitable, but also less expensive for the prospective purchaser. There is also pressure to restrict new developments as a result of “NIMBYism”, but also the lack of housing space for the growing population of the UK.

Building all houses to M4(2) minimum standards will increase housing costs and reduce the availability of cheap starter homes, for as long as this conflict of interests continues. Ultimately, it comes down to money. I would prefer to see government grants readily available for those who cannot afford to buy or rent a suitable home or have it adapted to their needs. And incentives to build homes to higher standards. We could start by abolishing stamp duty on homes built to M4(2) or M4(3) standards.

Finally, it is worth reminding anyone reading this who has a chronic (long-term) sickess or disability, that both work and materials (e.g. doors, a bathroom refit or extension, restoration of decor) necessary to make you own home compliant with the additional regulations covered by M4(2) / M4(3) can be carried out free of VAT. You do not need to be registered disabled or eligible for benefits, but need to notify your proposed builder to ensure they apply the deduction.

I moved home when I was in mid-60s. While house-hunting I thought about how I would cope when I was older. There is a step to negotiate but it would be easy to put in a ramp to the front door. I have a downstairs room that could be repurposed as a bedroom. It would be easy to fit a stairlift and add an additional socket to power it. There is already a walk-in shower. I would need a wider garden gate to get to the side-door but there is ample room for another ramp. I am planning to have the front and back doors replaced when coronavirus is no longer a problem and need to ensure that the width of the door frame is not reduced.

This Convo prompted me to ring a former colleague who is 96 and lives alone. He had a stairlift put in last year and has now had a new bathroom with walk-in bath. Early in the year I visited my previous home where the new owner had moved to be close to her family. It was interesting to see the modifications that had been made to make it suitable for an elderly person.