-

The Older I Get, the Colder I Get

Our population is ageing and by 2050 it is estimated that a quarter of people in the UK will be aged 65 and over, compared to 18% today. Most people wish to stay in their home for as long as possible, or Age-in-Place, but this often results in long periods of time spent indoors. It is estimated that the average older person spends 90% of their time in their home. Whilst this is not necessarily a problem, it highlights the importance of ensuring that their homes are safe, warm and comfortable, so as not to cause any risk to health and well-being.

However, there may be many barriers to ensuring older people, especially those with constrained incomes, are able to live longer and healthier lives in their own homes. This is particularly true when it comes to issues of keeping warm in cold weather. Our recent research suggests that, all too often, a make-do-and-mend approach or stoicism can result in older people attempting to cope with situations that would typically be considered unacceptable. An excellent illustration are statements of the following kind from one of the participants in our study:

“I put up with it, I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable, but I put up with it. I just think well if I’m cold I’ve got to do something about it to keep warm, it’s no good if I moan to you or my friends, because they can’t do anything about it.”

“My asthma is chronic, and I do feel that as I get older my lung function deteriorates and the cold does exacerbate it, but I manage.”

Fortunately, there are many services offered to older people designed to significantly benefit health and well-being including retrofitting, home adaptations, or information and advice services. However, these services are not always readily accepted by older people, primarily because they can feel out of their depth. Indeed, suggestions for improvement, even from trusted sources can be treated with scepticism because older people may not feel sufficiently well informed.

Having not grown up with technology, for instance, means that older people can be anxious about its use and apprehensive about making any changes for fear of not having a great enough understanding. For example, two participants from our study noted the following about tariff switching, which is now conducted over the internet:

“It’s just so intricate, it’s not easy to swap, it’s like with insurance policies, when you think oh well is that included in that, so have I got a better deal or haven’t I.”

“We feel a bit inferior, definitely. Definitely, we don’t feel as secure as we were years ago”

Often, automation is seen as a potential solution to problems. For example, a smart home management system could ensure comfortable conditions are maintained while monitoring for any wasteful uses. Our team has successfully trialled such a system in low-income homes, showing that it is possible to stay comfortable while saving up to 20% of a home’s energy bill. However, older people can experience a feeling of disempowerment due to the ‘loss of agency’ that is implied by a smart home system; illustrated through statements such as:

“Yes, but not all these things in the house, I don’t fancy getting my house all electronically managed. Like Hive and things like that, I saw an advert[isement] on TV where it organizes everything, and I don’t like that.”

‘In-their-depth’

So, what can we do? We think it is crucial to help older people feel ‘in-their-depth’ when providing services. In other words, we need to find ways of helping them to empower themselves in decision making. One way of doing this is to have an ‘options visitor’, whose role is to meet any service recipients and talk through all the potential options that they might benefit from. During the meeting it can be beneficial to provide a service brochure, which is easy to read and clear to follow, detailing all the options that have been discussed – and one that does not require recourse to the internet. Also, critically, it is important to provide a contact number, ideally of the person who visited them. Older people need to feel confident and part of that comes from building a relationship with them, therefore consistency of contact person is very valuable.

Fundamentally, it is about remembering that older people are a different generation and it is important to create familiar environments for them when suggesting they make any changes to their home or lifestyle, such as retrofitting, as otherwise they can feel overwhelmed. By providing a situation where they are able to build a relationship with the service provider improves their trust and confidence, which will empower them and make them much more likely to take up any services that are offered.

This blog draws on research published in the paper “‘The Older I Get, the Colder I Get’—Older People’s Perspectives on Coping in Cold Homes”, C Hughes, S Natarajan, Journal of Housing For the Elderly 33 (4), 337-357, 2019.