New adage for old age

After decades spent making a house a home, should older people downsize to ease housing shortages for the young?

A report by think-tank the Intergenerational Foundation triggered a wave of alarming headlines recently when it appeared to suggest that, to ease the housing shortage for younger people and families, older folk should be urged to vacate their spacious homes – and that the government should offer tax breaks as an incentive.

Campaigners, charities, commentators and politicians queued up to lambast the idea as heartless. The essence of their objection – that no one should be obliged to surrender their home – goes right to the heart of our dearly-held belief that an Englishman’s home is his castle and anyone who tries to breach its walls, whether criminal intruder or thinktank upstart, deserves everything that’s coming to them.

The researchers under-estimated the sensitive nature of this particular debate. But their argument might have received a more positive response had they taken a different tack and pitched downsizing as an issue of self-interest for older people – rather than something they could be emotionally blackmailed into for the sake of the rest of society.

In the US, the idea of downsizing when one passes retirement age is viewed much more pragmatically. Moving to a smaller home when the family has flown the nest is seen as a logical step, enabling older people to realise the investment on their property and to relinquish the cost and hassle of maintaining a larger place. Hence the enormous popularity of retirement villages, where people live in a community with a range of services, including on-site care.

Here, on the other hand, as Nick Sanderson, chairman of the Association of Retirement Village Operators, observes on page 13, “it’s a very British thing to stay put to maintain your independence and let the house fall down around you”.

Moving house is never straightforward, of course. And when you’re older and moving to a smaller home, deciding which of the family heirlooms accrued over decades, much-loved books or children’s toys to dispose of can cause major heartache, even if they have been boxed up in the loft for many years. The problem looms so large for some that the only answer is to call in professional declutterers, as our feature on page 13 explains.

Esther Rantzen, TV personality and campaigner, faced precisely this issues when she chose to downsize from a five-storey family home in north London to a two-bedroom flat nearby. It was, she admits to our interviewer, Maureen Paton, “agonising” to whittle down her mountain of possessions – including editing a collection of 250 vases down to 30 – but was content with the final outcome: “I found I didn’t miss the stuff I threw away.” Esther has embraced a new streamlined life wholeheartedly but she is one of the lucky ones. Not because she had the money to move in comfort but because she had the wisdom to do so while she is still in a position to choose.

It’s a refrain our writers often hear from older people who opted to downsize: “We are choosing to do it now rather than be forced into it later.”

Think-tankers take note: freedom of choice still matters. And not only to the young.

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