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The myths of growing old: how to plan for a positive later life

We can't know exactly what our later years will bring, but taking early action is possible - to save stress, upheaval and cost later on

The inevitability of a care home... Having to downsize... Needing to sell the family home to pay for escalating care costs. There are some persuasive so-called truths about later life, but what's the reality? We've taken a fresh look at older age in 2019.

As Suzanne Hall of Ipsos Mori points out: 'People in later life are actually some of the happiest in society, with most Western studies showing happiness levels increasing from our sixties until at least our mid-seventies.'

Key to getting the most out of the future is making decisions about later life, earlier. So we've interviewed a panel of experts - from a financial adviser to an occupational therapist - to pinpoint the important choices to make that can impact the quality of your years to come - and bust a few myths along the way.

For practical pointers on financing care or making home adaptations in later life, visit our free, independentLater Life Care website.

Myth 1 - I'll have to downsize

'Relatively small numbers of older people move at all, and out of that the numbers who downsize are modest'- Dr Gemma Burgess, University of Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research

It sounds obvious: a pragmatic move in later life to the bijou property of your dreams - maybe near the coast or even abroad. But the reality of what older people actually do is rather different.

For those who do move, it's about 'rightsizing' rather than downsizing, often with a different need for space in mind - for example, bedrooms for family to stay, or an office for home-working.

In fact, the most common move for older-55s is to a four-bedroom property and 46% invested more when they moved, according to research by the NHBC Foundation.

Top tips from Which? members who have downsized:

  • Decluttering is a major issue - you can't start it early enough!
  • Do it early. As one couple put it: 'downsizing in our late 50s gave us the time and energy to develop and enjoy a new lifestyle'.
  • Leave plenty of time - more than four in 10 members told us the process took longer than expected.
  • Tot up 'rightsizing' costs. Estimate moving costs, and - if you're moving for reduced outgoings - estimate bills such as water, electricity, gas and council tax.
  • Carry out some basic futureproofing checks when viewing new properties - could the layout and structure accommodate a downstairs bedroom or bathroom, for example, and would the stairs be suitable for a future stairlift?

Which? Later Life Care has more advice, including a practical downsizing checklist.

Myth 2 - I won't need to adapt my home - or my ways

'The housing aspiration of the majority of older people is to live independently in their current home for as long as possible. Home adaptations can play an important role in achieving that personal aim.'- Care and Repair England, 'Adapting for Ageing'

Most people stay in the homes they love and don't move - after all, it's hard to think ahead when you don't know exactly what life or your health will bring you years down the line.

Just over half of people aged 55+ didn't expect to have to adapt their home, but around a third of those aged 75+ had done so.

So how can you plan ahead for a future you can't see yet?

Sue Adams, Chief Executive of housing charity Care and Repair England advises: 'Stand back and look at what's possible in your specific situation. You can look at what happens generally as we age and plan, as much as you practically can, for the most likely changes.'

With just over a third of us experiencing mobility issues after the age of 70, and a similar number experiencing sight loss over 75, the kitchen and bathroom pose two of the biggest problem areas.

And thinking about future-proofing isn't always about having 'special' gadgets. Occupational therapist Kirstie Dalrymple recommends:

  • Pull-out drawers for easy storage (pull-out fridges and freezers are also available).
  • Avoiding high wall cupboards if you can.
  • A comfortable area to sit and prepare food.
  • Ceramic hobs - they stay cool, which is a great safety feature.

For a bathroom, a level-access wet room can be ultra-modern and designed to work for all abilities. Simple design features make all the difference: shower controls that you could reach from a sitting position, for example, or a towel rail that doubles up as a grab rail.

From ramps to rails, consult our advice on home adaptations - as well as our rigorous reviews of mobility and disability aids.

Myth 3 - I'll probably end up in a care home

'It can be difficult to know the different alternatives if you want or need to live in a more supported environment, but it's worth doing the research as the choices are expanding, even for those who need daily care.'- Emma Callery, editor, Which? Later Life Care

Just one in seven (15%) of people aged 85+ in the UK lives in a care home, according to Age UK.

For some people, going into a care home is the most appropriate and positive choice. But there's a growing number of alternatives to consider if you're relatively fit and able, including retirement villages and sheltered housing including extra-care housing.

Having care or support in your own home, most commonly provided by visiting paid carers, can also offer tailored help that can keep you living an independent life.

Half of Which? members who have paid carers, or had arranged this for someone else, admitted that they were initially reluctant - but nearly nine in 10 agreed it had been the right decision.

Find out more about organising home care, and what your different options are.

Myth 4 - I'll have to sell the house

'People often contact me after having made decisions around care needs, and commit to a placement in a care home, before they consider the longer term and financial implications. Some could have made more sustainable and appropriate decisions if they'd taken specialist advice before a crisis.'- Catriona Lumiste, Financial Adviser

The cost of ongoing care can lead to years of eye-watering bills, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you'll have to sell the family home.

The value of a home is only taken into account when your council is assessing for a move to a care home, not for other types of care and support, and selling isn't your only option.

For example, local authorities (except in Northern Ireland) must offer deferred payment schemes to those who meet their criteria, but these won't necessarily be widely promoted. This can help people with savings of less than £23,250 (the limit in England) to use the value of their homes to pay care-home fees, without selling up.

The loan is subject to interest and is repaid on death or when the home is sold.

Find out more about financing care and use our simple cost of care tool to find out about care home fees and funding options.

Myth 5 - It's too early to think about later life

'I was recently asked “When did life became so complicated that we can't deal with our own financial affairs?” It's a good question. When it comes to money we can be reluctant to get on and sort out the things we know we need to.'- Jane Finnerty, The Society of Later Life Advisers (SOLLA)

Jane suggests four things everyone can and should do as early as possible to get their affairs in order:

1. Make a will: if you die without a will, your estate will be divided up according to standard rules, known as intestacy law, regardless of what your wishes may have been.

2. Organise financial and health powers of attorney: lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) gives someone of your choosing the right to make decisions for you if you lose the capacity to do so.

3. Sort out an advance decision: if there are specific medical treatments you don't want to receive, consider recording these in a legally binding advance decision (or 'living will').

4. Get your paperwork in order: make it easy on yourself and your relatives by having a clear paper trail related to your property and other assets.