'The Guide to Later Life' - Writers' Contributions

When is it the right time to leave the family home and choose new, more appropriate accommodation?"

The answer to this question is – before it’s too late...

You get in your car, you fasten your seat belt, don’t you? When you’ve finished cooking, you check you’ve turned off the gas? And you’d hesitate about carrying a heavy load upstairs, because a tumble mightn’t be a good idea.

As we get older, we get shewder about routine activities which might bring trouble. Yet most people refuse to think about the future, to the point where we fail to take decisions in our own interests. In so doing we put ourselves and our families at risk.

By “most people” I mean around 90% of us. When McCarthy & Stone asked the owners of their retirement flats what made them come, the answer was often bereavement, or an illness or disability in themselves or their partners. 90% only moved when they had to. Yet one can’t help feeling that if that decision had been taken earlier, some of the catastrophe might have been averted.

When my mother in Liverpool was 86, we had a serious conversation. She was still fit and active, in the house bought in 1952, an ordinary semi with upstairs bathroom. Her request: that I’d pay for the roof to be fixed. Mine: that she find a ground floor flat, so that I could stop worrying about her falling down the stairs.

We had quite a barney about that, I will admit. But six weeks later, she had located the perfect place, close to her old haunts and friends. The move, she would say later, had given her a new lease of life, and she continued well until her last days, just before her 93rd birthday.

Mum’s move had worked magic. So as my husband turned 70, I made plans. That included getting closer to my own daughter and grand-daughter (now aged 7) and to our northern roots. This time, I insisted on “mains drainage and a pavement.” The spot we found has a doctor’s, dentist, newsagent, chiropodist, physio, wine shops, hairdressers, restaurants, takeaways and a supermarket, and bliss! a station, all within a short walk. We are set up, I hope, for the rest of our lives.

Why don’t more people do this? Whenever I knock on doors for elections, I’m struck at how many older people are rattling round in places too big for them, properties which they can’t keep up. That house with peeling paint almost certainly belongs to a pensioner, who should have moved years ago. Sounds familiar?

One barrier is inertia, and dislike of change. It’s easier to shrink one’s activity into a couple of rooms, than go through the upheaval of moving. Downsizing means throwing precious things away, cherished furniture, books. Worst, moving is a confirmation that the future is not going to be the same as the past; so, many people would simply rather not think about it. Until, often, it’s too late.

So it’s important to rope in the family (like me with Mum, they may be relieved that the issue’s been raised). Get them to do the heavy lifting – literally! Going flat-hunting together can be fun, and an opportunity to talk about future needs in a natural, unforced way. Don’t rush: take your time.

Realise that the move can be hugely financially beneficial. A smaller home will cost less to run, obviously. Capital release by selling (or renting out) your old house is your money, free of encumbrances, to do with what you like. There’s plenty of financial advice available if you need it. But you saved and scrimped in part to give yourself a comfortable old age, no? Here’s the chance to achieve just that.

If you like, some of the money can be passed on to the next generations, early enough for them not to incur tax (you have to outlive the gift by 7 years). By contrast, the granddad who insists on staying put may be landing his offspring with an inheritance tax bill. I don’t know too many people who love the Inland Revenue that much more than their own family.

Some of my best conversations with Mum came as we chose curtains, carpets, a new kitchen and bathroom. Sorting through the stuff to leave is also an opportunity: take those old photographs, and write on the back who they are. I’ve discovered a family photo from 1906 with my great-grandparents; it’s wonderful to see those bearded faces, those huge hats and long dresses, looking (some of them) just like me.

We are lucky to be the first generation in history which knows we’ll reach a grand old age. Our parents got to their 80s and 90s but did not expect to; we know we will. Mostly, we’ve worked hard all our lives and done reasonably well, with homes and pension funds and children off our hands. That required wise decision-making in our younger days. Now that we’re older, a few more decisions are needed. Then, we can happily grow to be very old, and not have to worry about it.