On average, the UK’s population is becoming older and living longer, healthier lives. This is due to historically low fertility rates and reduced mortality rates. Between 2014 and 2039, the government predicts that over 70% of UK population growth will be in the over 60 age group. Although this trend is partially countered by migration, by 2037 there will be 1.42 million more households headed by someone aged 85 or over.
The implications of population ageing for society are so complex and far reaching that they are impossible to fully predict. However, a key priority is the provision of age-friendly environments. This is where local government, and planning departments in particular, have a crucial role to play.
In this blog post – the first of two on the implications of population ageing for planning – we highlight some key areas for consideration.
Some areas will be more affected than others
While headline-grabbing statistics paint a very clear picture of the significant growth in the number of older people that is predicted, often they obscure the subtleties of the way in which population ageing will occur across the UK.
In reality, it is likely that population ageing will not occur equally in all areas of the UK. The degree to which some local authorities – and therefore planning departments – will be affected varies considerably.
The impact of population ageing is measured by a ‘dependency ratio’ – the number of people aged over 65 for every person between 16 and 64.
Recent research has found that coastal localities are likely to have higher dependency ratios than urban areas. Urban areas will, however, experience a larger overall number of older people.
Dependency ratios will vary considerably between local authorities. On average, it is predicted that by 2036, there will be over four people aged over 65 for every 10 people aged between 16-64. However, local figures are likely to vary – from just over 1 in 10 in Tower Hamlets, up to 8 in 10 in West Somerset.
Differences between the ‘young old’ and ‘older old’
And while there is awareness of the growth in the overall numbers of ‘older people’, another complexity is that ‘older people’ are not a homogenous group.
As life expectancy increases, the differences between different age groups become more significant. For example, there are variations in the needs, tastes and lifestyles between the ‘older old’, i.e. those aged over 80, and the ‘young old’ who are just approaching retirement age.
Some planning departments are already taking this into consideration. Northumberland County Council – who have a higher than average number of older people within their population – use a three phase definition as part of their strategy to prepare for the ageing population. They categorise ‘older people’ into three distinct groups: older workers; ‘third agers’; and older people in need of care.
Understanding social impact and interpretation
The physical environment is commonly understood to be a ‘societal context’ in which ageing occurs. This is reflected in the term ‘physical-social environment’ – it suggests that there is no physical environment without social interpretation.
However, recent research has found that while planners were reasonably aware of the physical needs of older people, they were less aware of the social and economic contexts of older people’s lives. This included the links between wellbeing and attractive environments, green space, activity and health, and the positive impact of place attractiveness on social interaction.
Related to this, older people’s social interpretation of the built environment – including the importance of place meanings, memories and attachments – is likely to become an increasingly important consideration for planners. As too is the potential effect of redevelopment on older people – which may include feelings of insecurity and alienation, disorientation, loss of independence, and social exclusion.
Involving older people in the planning system
How to effectively involve older people in the planning system in an increasingly technology-dependent age will pose a number of challenges.
Planners will need to think creatively about options for engagement. Increasingly, social media platforms and other online media have been used to engage with users. However, these technologies may not be readily accessible or easily used by older people due to a lack of technological skills or access to the internet.
Older people may also need certain adaptations to support them to become involved – either online or in person – if they have physical or other disabilities.
Negative assumptions about technology’s usefulness held by some older people may need to be challenged or worked around.
Supporting healthy and happy lives
There is no way to fully predict the impact that population ageing will have across all sections of society. Developing our understanding of the way in which the built environment can help to support and enable older people to live happy and healthy lives – and the implications of this for planning towns and cities across the UK – is increasingly important.
In our next blog post we will look at some of the ways in which planners can help support the creation of age-friendly environments through their influence on the design of the urban environment, transport, housing and the wider community and neighbourhood.