THE BLOG

The £1.2Trillion Question - How Much Is Health and Happiness Worth?

27/02/2014 11:56 GMT | Updated 28/04/2014 10:59 BST

England's over 60s are sitting on housing worth £1.2 Trillion, with unmortgaged equity worth around £750 billion.

The numbers are staggering and think-tank Demos is urging the Government to encourage people to unlock this housing equity by offering them financial incentives like pension-style Care Accounts.

The theory is that these incentives will help overcome the cultural attachment people have to housing in the UK, encouraging them to downsize and pay for care. Unlike Americans who swap their four-bed family home for a condo in Florida, downsizing is not a concept we've fully embraced.

For many years home ownership has been seen as the ultimate sign of success. Consequently, as we age, we're reluctant to trade in the family home that not only represents prosperity, but also freedom, individualism and love.

But are our family homes actually disconnecting us from our community as we grow older? And rather than incentives, do we need to re-look at our concept of what home and family living means in later life?

We know that over half of over 75s are living alone, and many go without regular contact - nearly one in five (17%) older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week.

Older people are also increasingly living with multiple chronic diseases, which impact their quality of life but also can result in social exclusion. And, if they are still in their family home and only get a 15 minute care visit, it will mean that they are effectively cut off from the outside world.

So the £1.2 trillion question is this. What will it take for older people to release their housing equity in order to plan for care?

For me the answer lies in changing the conversation about planning for later life and providing an environment where the focus is on relationships and contribution.

Instead of framing the conversation in terms of "planning and paying for care", why don't we encourage people to plan for a life that's going to make them happier for longer? It's much more appealing than telling people how much they need to save in case they end up in a care home!

My mentor Dr Bill Thomas is a strong believer in living a more connected life. He created the Eden Alternative and the Green House Project to help older people in the US retain deep and meaningful relationships, while remaining active contributors to their community.

What's more, the Green House Project provides a new type of family living and bears no relation to an institution. It looks and functions like a real home, where people engage in the domesticities of daily life but with support if they need it.

This means Green House residents avoid traditional nursing homes and avoid the risk of maltreatment and emergency admission to hospital for preventable conditions, such as severe dehydration or malnutrition. Instead they enjoy a better quality of life and improved health and wellbeing.

New lifestyle alternatives - like Green House in the US and Evermore in the UK - help older people continue doing the things they love, surrounded by people whose company they enjoy. It is this connectedness that gives our lives meaning.

Reframing ageing, combined with providing an environment where older people remain connected, must be part of the answer to encouraging them to swap housing capital for social capital.

To borrow a line from the World Economic Forum at Davos, Health is Wealth and good health and wellbeing is surely the ultimate sign of a prosperity and success - not bricks and mortar.