Scotland's population is changing, so the way we live, and where we live, should change too.

That is the conclusion of Lord Sutherland, who once helped pioneer Scotland's policy on free personal care for the elderly but who has now turned his attention to housing. He believes that housing policy must be reformed and that a broader range of accommodation should be offered to older people, including American-style retirement villages.

The background to Lord Sutherland's comments is well known: Scots are getting older and frailer with the number of over-65s predicted to increase by more than half to 1.47 million. New figures last week also showed that the number of single households is increasing and that the number of very elderly people living alone is expected to rise the fastest.

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This poses all kinds of problems for society as a whole and the health service in particular, but Lord Sutherland believes he has identified a potential solution in villages that provide a range of services including libraries and swimming pools as well as care and rehabilitation services designed to provide a good quality of life and a higher level of professional support if and when it is needed.

Such villages are already common in the US and are beginning to appear more in the UK (a developer has announced plans for one in Newton Mearns for example). They are also well liked by many of the residents who live in them.

Life in such places will not be for everyone of course (indeed, for some independent older people, the idea of a "village for old people" away from the community they know would fill them with horror). As a society, we should also be careful before we section off older people into separate, gated communities; on the whole, mixed communities are a much better idea.

However, the potential of retirement communities to solve some of Scotland's problems with social care, and alleviate pressure on the NHS, is huge. So-called bed-blocking, for example, is caused when a patient is forced to stay in hospital because there is nowhere in the community where they can be cared for; a retirement village with care facilities could help solve that problem.

The current model for such villages means that residents have to be relatively well-off to afford to live there. But, as Lord Sutherland suggests, the incentive for councils to become more involved and provide an element of affordable housing is strong, principally because a retirement community that already caters for older people's needs could help prevent them having to go into expensive care homes.

Lord Sutherland's support for change is only the beginning of the debate on this issue but it is an extremely welcome contribution to the profound discussion that is needed on how Scotland is to cope with its changing demographics. At the moment, there is a yawning gap between the ordinary family home and the care home, with the NHS often having to bridge that gap in a crisis. Lord Sutherland's ideas offer a promising, hopeful alternative.