By David Leask

SCOTLAND’s elderly population could be housed in specialist retirement villages under plans being investigated to reduce the numbers living in care homes.

Researchers have been tasked with looking at why there is a shortage of alternative housing stock for elderly residents which is forcing many into care homes due a lack of choice.

The academics from Aberdeen University will look at the way elderly people live in countries like Australia, USA, Japan and New Zealand where retirement villages allow them to live independently in resort-style complexes.

Now, following the huge numbers of deaths from coronavirus in care homes, similar schemes could be introduced in the UK.

Coronavirus has come as a huge financial blow to the care-home sector with one major US housing giant seeing its share price plummet by more than half since the virus started sweeping the globe.

But some in Scotland’s still small commercial sheltered housing sector remain upbeat as people rethink the care-home model and instead embrace sheltered housing.

Andrew Fyfe, director of an independent living agency in Scotland called Sovereign Property Partnership, says that while care homes will not disappear, other models should be developed too.

He said: “According to figures published by the Office for National Statistics, over a third of coronavirus deaths in Scotland have been recorded in care homes.

“Care homes are currently an essential part of the make-up of senior housing and they will most likely always have a part to play when residents need round-the-clock care, but perhaps it is time to consider a different way of thinking about how vulnerable older people can be cared for in the future?”

He added: “Early indications are that mortality rates in senior housing facilities are much lower than they have been in care homes.

“Of course, this could be because of the vulnerability of patients who need round-the-clock care versus the relative independence of people living in independent living facilities, but consider this … the average age of a resident in a McCarthy & Stone home [wh have around 70% of the market share in senior housing in the UK] is 78.

“Perhaps it has simply been easier to isolate those in retirement communities as there is more space and quicker implementation of shielding procedure?”

The equivalent of a sizeable town lives in Scotland’s care homes – nearly 36,000 people in 2017.

Public Health Scotland last published a detailed census in 2018, showing trends over the first decade of the SNP Government.

This told a story of a gradual but sustained reduction in the population of adults with mental health problems or physical or learning disabilities in care homes.

For people with learning difficulties, numbers in traditional homes dropped by 38% between 2007 and 2017.

However, the number of elderly people in homes is not falling nearly so quickly, by just 2% over the decade.

The rising toll of dementia and, Fyfe believes, low supply of alternatives to care homes has kept up numbers.

He said: “There is very little stock which might be appealing to someone between the ages of 55 and 75.

“If you contrast that with senior housing in Australia, New Zealand and the US, where facilities which offer varying levels of care are much more commonplace, we start to get a picture of how far the UK is lagging behind.

“In fact, almost 10 times as many over-65s live in retirement communities in these countries versus the UK.”

Fyfe’s agency is currently working with the University of Aberdeen, to try to figure out why so few people in Scotland decide to live in specialist senior housing.

Care homes – most of which are private and many of which struggle with low margins – do not come cheap. Neither do any of the property options on the scale of sheltered or retirement housing.

In the United States, where the sector, called senior living, is much bigger, only the very richest have moved in to retirement communities.

Japan, which has one of the oldest populations in the world, has also embraced senior living. The industry is private – but paid for through a government-funded insurance system.

Speaking to Property Investment Today, Alex Short of AEW UK, an investment firm, said older people renting in retirement communities could be a good option – but she stressed this might have downsides. She said: “The current composition of UK senior living accommodation lacks proper choice for the diverse population in the UK and the rental model will offer a much-needed alternative to the current status quo.”

Short, however, believes Britain will likely go down the US private path rather than the Japanese one.

The Health Protection Scotland census of care homes showed the private sector taking an increasing market share from 2007-17.

In Scotland, social landlords and councils do provide sheltered housing for rent. Many Scots will never be able to afford retirement living on their own. After Covid-19, will the taxpayer step in to help them?