Silver Scream

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life, Old Age, credit Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute

Silver Scream

Bill Hartley, on the retirement-community racket

On a busy urban road near where I live stand a pair of heavy duty iron gates set into a high brick wall. This defensive perimeter has the feel of an institution but closer inspection reveals it is a gated, retirement complex. People who acquire an apartment in such places (never a mere flat) are buying not just a home but a lifestyle. They are heavily advertised and clearly this is a buoyant market. Although this type of development isn’t specifically sheltered accommodation for the infirm or vulnerable, once it has you in its clutches it might as well be since it operates on the assumption that by 55 (often the lower limit for getting in) your outlook changes, though as one inmate sorry resident points out in a promotional video, ‘you can come and go as you want’. However nicely put, there is an overarching sense of decline and inevitable dependency.

Paradoxically, the advertising often features hale and hearty couples, slim and trim, the sort you might see on television stopping at one of those leisure hotels or on a European river cruise. The reality, though, is somewhat different. Residents tend to be homely old ladies. Locational advantages are often talked up by the residents; nearby coffee shops or the proximity of a railway station. A bit like day release really.

Another of the advertising pitches these companies make is that they will take care of all the chores for you allowing ‘more time’ for the things you like. Don’t fancy cleaning skirting boards? Then this can be added to your not-to-do list and the staff will take care of it. All this sounds superficially attractive and perhaps many of us would wish to off load window cleaning, lawn mowing and the like onto others. However, one of the problems for retirees and not always anticipated, is how to use up all of that time previously spent on work. Not just the forty or so hours spent there but the travelling and other associated matters. Some people manage this quite effectively; often they have a range of activities which can be expanded to fill the time available. In retirement ‘village’ land (another cosy word they have appropriated) routine domestic chores become translated into burdens, rather than an integral part of life.

A colleague has parents who moved to such a place out in Lincolnshire. He described it as an isolated outpost adjacent to a village. Imagine, he said, being in a ‘community’ where day follows day, weekends and bank holidays pass almost unnoticed and where children are admitted for only a limited number of hours. Youngsters are noisy and energetic and would disturb the leaden calm of the place. Artificiality is one of the key features. Diversity is lost. Gone is the normal mixed neighbourhood of intergenerational living, replaced by a world behind the gates where everyone is at a ‘similar stage in life’.

Retirement living is big business and these properties aren’t cheap. One and two bedroom apartments can range from between a quarter and half a million pounds depending on location. Often such places are described as ‘award winning’, though it’s never stated what the award is. When it’s nationally known and recognised most companies won’t hesitate to tell you. Generally they’ll stick a logo on their publications for added emphasis. At one location the ‘ever expanding’ social life was flagged up. Clearly those additional hours which might have been spent cleaning skirting boards need to be filled. The social events mentioned included coffee mornings, fish and chip suppers and…..that was it. So in exchange for having a great deal of everyday life sucked out of your existence, you can have all the coffee mornings you want. This life comes at a price of course and not just the cost of an apartment.

Whilst doubtless there are people satisfied with this kind of arrangement and have a need for someone to keep an eye on them, there is a downside. Some of these problems seem to have first become noticeable in Australia where lawyers are reportedly bringing a class action against a retirement homes company. A solicitor commented that some of the contracts he has seen run to 100 pages. Also management fees may be deferred for two or three years after purchase. If the buyer doesn’t like the place they may discover they have lost 35% of the purchase price and be unable to afford to go elsewhere. Another example perhaps of how consumer law struggles to keep up with our fast changing society.

The Daily Telegraph published an article about the pitfalls of buying into this lifestyle, quoting a former property journalist Sebastian O’Kelly who runs a charity called Campaign Against Retirement Leasehold Exploitation (CARLEX). One of the points he makes is that all these management services may be supplied by offshoots of the freeholder. In other words there is no competitive tendering process and residents may find themselves hit by very high costs. O’Kelly also warns that these properties sell at a high premium and tend to depreciate dramatically. Interestingly, even after death residents may continue to require laundry and meals. Some relatives discovered that whilst the apartment was up for sale, service charges were still costing £10,000 per annum.

It is clearly a seductive product: all those pesky chores taken care of, the operators generously permitting people to come and go as they like, endless coffee mornings and no kids. However, the BBC has reported that ‘half of new build retirement homes sold over a ten year period were later re-sold at a loss’. AgeUK produces an excellent fact sheet in which the prospective buyer can learn all about charges on top of service charges and other costs waiting for the unwary. Perhaps there is something to be said for standing on your own two feet as long as you can.

William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service 

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