Residential: problems faced by older people

Safe and warm

14 March 2018

Mike Parrett looks at the property problems faced by older people in the UK

The UK’s elderly population is growing. Housing and homelessness charity Shelter reported that in 2005 there were almost 9.4m people over retirement age, with this figure likely to increase to 10.6m by 2021. The Office for National Statistics has also projected that people older than 65 will represent almost a quarter of the population by 2046, and the House of Lords Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change said England will see a 51% rise in those aged 65-plus, with a 101% increase in those aged 85-plus, between 2010 and 2030.

This growth not only puts severe pressure on the nation’s health services and finances, but also on the properties in which the elderly live.

The impact of ageing

As people get older, their deteriorating health affects how they use their properties, and they may become trapped in a home that no longer suits their needs. For example, arthritis means some may find it hard to use twist taps, and many will have difficulty climbing the stairs – which, given the toilet and bathroom are often found on the first floor of traditional properties, will pose significant problems.

Poor mobility also means that many old people sleep in downstairs rooms. However, the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998, as amended, state that fires, space or water heaters with a gross output of more than 14kW must be room-sealed if they are located in an area used for sleeping – that is, they must obtain air from, and vent combustion products to, the outside air – so they cannot have an open flue.

If they did, potentially dangerous products of combustion such as carbon monoxide may accumulate. These rooms must also contain a device that will shut down an appliance if it detects deleterious emissions approaching dangerous levels.

A well-known related problem is when an old person lives in a property that is much too big for them and yet they may not be able to move house, or are reluctant to do so. As well as affecting the housing supply, they often don’t see the need to heat or ventilate such a house when they only occupy a small part of it. In cold weather, underheating then becomes a critical problem in properties that have poor thermal efficiency, as it can lead to issues such as damp.

Winter risks

I have seen these issues during many property surveys, and they were especially acute in the London Borough of Lewisham during the severe winters of the 1970s and 1980s. In the winter of 1981–2, for instance, many elderly people in high-rise tower blocks and cottage estates suffered from frozen pipes and water storage tanks, and this was usually followed by bursts and flooding. These proved a particular problem in properties with uninsulated pipes and those with hand-tightened rather than welded joints.

Surveyors may often focus solely on physical problems and not think of the human issues

Many properties on cottage estates used a mix of natural slate roof tiles and Sterreberg Courtrai and Van Echt interlocking clay tiles from Belgium and France. These were either laid on matchboarding or directly on the timber rafters, affixed to cross battens, and many were laid without any undersarking that would act as a wind barrier. This allowed tremendous wind penetration, making the lofts and the habitable spaces underneath much colder, and putting them at risk of rainwater penetration if a tile became dislodged or broken. Often, an attempt was made to install a wind barrier by stapling reinforced paper between the rafters.

Cottage-estate terraces were also usually built without loft firewalls between properties. As well as creating security problems and fire risks, the absence of firewalls exacerbated the issue of cold loft spaces. If adjoining spaces also lacked undersarking, this meant they often acted like wind tunnels.

The lessons learned from these bitter winters led the borough to improve its maintenance plans, replacing loft storage tanks with direct water mains feeds, for instance. Although this review was more than 30 years ago, we have found that the same issues are still prevalent  today.

While they could have affected any property, most problems in the winter of 1981–2 occurred in the homes of the elderly as they were underheating their properties, with a consequent impact on their health.

Some actions taken by the borough as a result of these findings were:  

  • educating staff to look for signs of hypothermia in old people
  • creating an “adopt a neighbour” scheme where people would look out for the elderly, particularly during cold spells
  • arranging joint discussions with welfare and social services staff to identify tenants who couldn’t afford to heat their homes but were underclaiming their benefit entitlements
  • inventing a thermometer card that showed when a property was too cold, and producing a hygrometer that highlighted when humidity was too high.

While some of these issues are not strictly related to building pathology, they demonstrate the benefit of looking at a problem holistically. Unfortunately, surveyors may often focus solely on physical problems and not think of the human issues.

Ventilation, mould and damp

Many old houses have draughts caused by features such as through-wall air vents or ill-fitting sash and metal-frame windows, increasing thermal loss and making it more expensive to heat homes. But these gaps are often just sealed up: windows are taped closed and thus never opened, while wall vents are covered using pieces of cardboard. Even with modern uPVC windows, people close trickle vents to reduce draughts, unaware that poor ventilation can cause condensation and mould.

Some older people also choose to heat just a single room, often the one where they spend their days and nights, with portable heaters using liquid-based fuels such as Calor gas. However, for every gallon of liquid fuel burnt, a gallon of water vapour is released into what is essentially a cold box, and this can condense on its surfaces.

My previous articles in Property Journal have discussed endemic problems relating to different kinds of buildings, such as missing damp-proof membranes in solid floors and blocked cavity walls. The combination of old properties, heating costs and generations who are used to frugality all conspire to create issues that affect the home.

We should welcome energy-saving measures to combat some of these, but we need to think carefully when introducing them into older buildings and ensure that all sources of moisture have been eliminated beforehand. This is not always done, so we need to rethink our approach to retrofitting because instead of creating warm, dry homes, we run the risk of creating damp, humid ones (see p.56 of the 2017 Cambridge University Land Society magazine).

One dilemma is that while a lack of loft insulation makes a habitable space colder, it allows heat to escape into the loft, possibly preventing water pipes and tanks from freezing. However, installing loft installation will reduce heat loss, meaning loft voids become even colder.

Design issues

Designing smaller homes that address the physical and mental needs of elderly people, and which together form an inclusive community to help overcome loneliness, would serve to prevent many illnesses associated with isolation, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. It would also help meet demand from some of the UK’s 8m people aged 65 or older who are willing to downsize, according to Age UK’s recent Later Life in the United Kingdom factsheet.

Adaptations to existing properties can also be enormously useful, but must be implemented correctly. For example, where wheelchair access is needed, concrete ramps and raised paths may bridge damp-proof courses, leading to dampness in walls. However, there are some simple solutions to common problems for elderly residents. For instance, when someone cannot reach a window above a sink in a kitchen, an extendable window-opening pole would enable them to do so.

Bathrooms can be full of hazards, but low-cost solutions can include:

  • installing seamless vinyl non-slip floor coverings and grip rails, with the advice of an occupational therapist
  • humidistat-controlled extractor fans, activated by an increased level of water vapour in the air rather than a pull cord
  • self-closing taps to avoid leaving water running.

In its 2014 report New Approaches To Housing For Older People, the Chartered Institute of Housing outlined some design standards aimed at reforming future bespoke housing for older people. These include giving properties a dual aspect to maximise natural ventilation and light, and making them care-ready, energy-efficient and well insulated.

While these standards are useful aims for future buildings the reality is that many elderly people live in old buildings. With an ever-growing elderly population, satisfying their housing needs requires an holistic approach that not only looks at the physical properties themselves but how they are used.

Mike Parrett is a building pathologist, chartered building surveyor and founder of Michael Parrett Associates. He is an Eminent Fellow of RICS and the lead author on the Damp section of isurv

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