A dramatic age quake is shaking Britain as the country grows older – for the first time ever, the number of people over 65 exceeds those under 16. Here, we look at the profound financial, emotional and practical issues faced by a rising number of Britons, and we report on the best places for retired people to live across the UK.


Less than a mile from their well-tended garden, Maureen and Michael Weatherall have a favourite walk along the Penzance seafront. “You look out on a sunny day and see St Michael’s Mount out in the blue water and it’s the kind of view people travel abroad for, but here it is in our backyard; sometimes that takes your breath away,” said Mrs Weatherall, 71.

The couple moved to the Cornish coast from south-east London some years ago to start a garage business and have stayed on in retirement. “The weather, the pace of life, the scenery, the shops, good access to the post office, it’s all very good.”

But even here in her West Country idyll, Mrs Weatherall shares something with the vast majority of British over-50s – she would rather be in Devon.

According to a new survey of nearly 14,000 people in the UK commissioned by the business group Saga, the happiest older people are those who are living in the county already, and the people who aren’t think they would be happier if they were. The likelihood that large numbers of older people will move to retirement hotspots has profound implications for Britain as it manages the impending boom in its ageing population. One in 10 people, regardless of where they lived themselves, picked Devon as the best county for retired people to live.

“Its just a little bit too out on a limb here; it’s a long way to go if you want to go anywhere, to London or to catch a holiday flight. I really would like to be a little further up, Devon near Exeter would be perfect,” said Mrs Weatherall.

She is not too far away from perfection, however. Cornwall and Dorset rated high in the survey: more than a quarter voted for one of the three south-west counties.

But almost as popular as the far south was the far north. Fife, closely followed by Aberdeenshire, came out as havens with not only the happiest elderly populations – with more than 80% likely to recommend their community as a great place to retire but also were voted best for quality of life, for health services, for scenery, and were where people were the most content to stay in retirement: 9 in 10 Scots are planning to stay put when they retire rather than to migrate south like their English counterparts.

In England, 43% of over-50s plan to move away when they retire – and with only 2% of them interested in moving to London. And the capital fared badly on all counts: just 0.5% of those polled thought it was a desirable place to live.

As a rough rule, the further from big centres of population people lived, the happier they were, with the West Midlands, Manchester and London all ranking as both unpopular and with a pretty unhappy older population. More than half of residents said they were not very likely to recommend their cities as places to live. Londoners complained of the high cost of living and two thirds of Mancunians complained of high crime. The only thing London got any credit at all for was transport: even Midlothian in Scotland ranked higher for access to culture and for listening to the views of older people.

In fact, the unpopularity of city life among the over-50s was marked. The single most important thing to people was access to the countryside. More than 80% of those polled put the countryside ahead of social life, access to healthcare, house prices, friendly neighbourhoods and good shops.

The picture painted by the survey was of an older generation surprisingly ready to up sticks and downsize. They were aspirational, and they valued peace and quiet above public amenities or a social life. There was little sentimentalism for places where people themselves grew up or where they raised their families. When asked what made a house a home, the survey showed that people cared much more about how their home was furnished and being in a safe, low-crime neighbourhood than how long they had lived there or connections to family.

The snapshot survey suggests that people are not thinking of social care until the worst actually happens. Most people ticked “don’t know” when asked about the provision of it in their area. With people living much longer, healthier lives, the crisis point is still a little way in the future when Britain’s demographics will throw up a great increase in its ageing population with all the tough financial and social issues that go alongside – funding pensions, nursing homes and coping with the vastly growing demand on dementia and other age-related health services.

While the over-50s showed mixed reactions on how worried they were about the recession’s effect on the value of their homes, even among those who planned to sell up, more of them were concerned that the value of what they hoped to leave their children was being eroded than for their own sakes. But people living longer and in better health means they are more prepared to risk making a new start in a new area, said Paul Green, a Saga spokesman.

“We saw this survey’s results as really positive, because older people were aspirational. They didn’t see retirement as something that comes at the end of life, but as something that marked a new life. Most of us spend most of our time cooped up in cramped offices with awful flickering lights and air conditioning and we can’t wait to get out into the open spaces and freedom of retirement. People now have maybe 20 years left in them when they hit retirement, so they have pretty clear ideas about where they want to be and what they want out of life.”

For the hotspots such as Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, which already have the country’s biggest concentrations of older populations, there are stiff challenges ahead. The pressures on social and health services will start to show here first and everyone knows it.

Bill Jordan, 83, is heading a pilot project in Devon set up last year. The Senior Council is funded by the government and the local authority as a way of collating the views and needs of older people; a few such schemes are now running around the country. He is an incomer to Devon, moving to Budleigh Salterton from Sheffield in search of a quieter life. But as a former mayor and town councillor, he also brought his skills.

“There are problems with people moving in and house prices, of course; this is a low-wage county. But the real resentment is towards the holiday home owners who don’t contribute to the community. A good percentage of older people I meet in Devon have moved here, looking for a better life, but they can be a breath of fresh air and are keen to get involved in the community,” he said. “The council has a policy called Ageing Well and there’s a serious attempt here to provide good services. A lot of our time at the Senior Council is spent on health issues. Caring for people with dementia is a big thing and is going to get bigger. Devon is a marvellous place to retire. A lot come here on holiday and fall in love with the place.”

For many of the older generation raised in an island nation with a strong bond with its seaside resorts and bucket-and-spade days out, the sea is a major draw. In the Saga Populus survey, people rated the sea over the countryside as their aspirational retirement.

“I think that helps Devon’s case that not only is it a peaceful and healthy lifestyle here, but it is also bounded by the sea on both sides and we have our big estuaries. That open space is really important,” said Eileen Wragg, Devon County Council’s “champion” for older people. But she admits some major problems come with popularity.

“We have a mixed population here. In the rural areas there’s isolation and deprivation just like in the cities and the retiring generation is pushing up property prices in an area of low wages, so our young people don’t have a chance of getting on the property ladder.”

Statistics show that one in four people plan to move on retiring, and move a long way: the average distance is nearly 200 miles away. Shopping and a good social scene are key motivators, but the traditional British pub is not. Living close to a local pub was the factor that least interested everyone who took part in the survey, scoring just 6% of votes.

Paul Davies works for McCarthy and Stone, a property company which specialises in older buyers, building two thirds of Britain’s retirement homes. “The majority of people who move into a retirement home will come from that area, but in the West Country there has been a much higher incidence of people moving into the area and that is really escalating.”

In a community centre on the ground floor of a red-brick block of flats in Camden, London, the lunch club is winding up and plates are being cleared away. The elderly diners are emptying out into the traffic-clogged street, and an elegantly dressed Laura Howard is off, leaning heavily on a stick, to meet friends. A Parisian and former Folies Bergère dancer, she married a Londoner, who died eight years ago. “I stayed here because I love London and I was settled here. I have a charming flat, and even though I am on my own now I have friends and I am happy here.”

Bobbie Page, 82, has tucked herself into the corner of the room with a cup of tea. “I love coming here. Nobody ever falls out and there’s such a lot of things to do. There’s a classical music session I really adore. But I’m hiding now, though,” she said. “I really don’t want to get dragged off to the tai-chi class.”

In London, older people seem less visible than in seaside towns, but in this corner of Camden there is little evidence of discontent among the users of the Age Concern resource centre.

“It is a different story in places such as Haringey and Tower Hamlets and Tottenham; it is a 200% different story,” said Laurie White, the centre’s manager. “There is some really terribly deprivation there and not enough services to go round, but having said that, even though there are some nice houses here it doesn’t mean pensioners aren’t struggling to keep them, or have very real issues. The worst thing for any old person is loneliness; that’s what they all tell you, and places such as this provide so many activities and social events.”

Those who use the centre are clearly having a lot of their needs met: friends, activities, and even a cheap hot meal once a day.

“If I could have two homes, then I’d be delighted to be in the countryside some of the time,” said Ian Hamlyn, 76. “But I am afraid that is beyond my means.” In a tie and suit jacket, Mr Hamlyn has his lunch here every day. “It is a service, so why not use it? I can see London is difficult for many older people who are isolated and struggling. The West End and the City tend to be for young people, but those bustling, busy spots are no places for older people. But I like swimming and dancing, and I am near to those things, there’s a cinema and there is Hampstead Heath, which is lovely for walks. I wish I could spend time in the wilds of Scotland, but it was not to be.”

But for many others, going back to their roots in retirement is a long-held dream. In Scotland, where 2009, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, is being marked with an official year of “Homecoming Scotland” events and celebrations. Maggie and Ben Dundas have returned after 50 years of married life spent first in Norfolk, then Hong Kong, and then Cornwall. After three years of hesitating, they downsized to a retirement house by the sea in Dunbar.

“As you get older, you want to come home,” said Mrs Dundas. “It is wonderful to be by the sea. It’s secure, we feel comfortable, we have more time and our neighbours are so welcoming.”

Case study

While other retired people opt to see out the winter of their lives in warmer climes, Margaret and Ronnie Halley have chosen a somewhat less glamorous spot – Dalkeith in Midlothian. It may not be a sun-kissed or tax-free paradise, but for the Halleys it’s ideal, and they were not surprised to learn that the area was rated among the happiest places for retired people to live in Saga’s poll. “This place is just about perfect,” says Mr Halley, a retired maths and physics teacher. “There are a lot of facilities, a lot of contented people, a close-knit and supportive community, beautiful countryside five minutes away, fresh air, and great neighbours whom we’ve known for years.”

He said another plus was that he felt older people’s views were listened to. “We have free bus passes and can go anywhere we like, and until recently we had free access to all sorts of health and leisure facilities. They have begun to introduce a small charge for this because of the recession, but overall I think we are very well treated.”

Mr Halley, 77, and his 75-year-old wife, a former nursery school teacher, said their priority in deciding where to live in retirement was proximity to their roots. The couple have four daughters and fostered several sons. Although one daughter lives in England, her three children are studying at Edinburgh University. “We see more of them than their mother does,” said Mrs Halley.

Just about everything they need is on their doorstep, including a post office, shops, a bowling club and a large supermarket.

Although they always wanted to stay close to their roots, they have enjoyed an active and adventurous retirement. Between 1990 and 1992, they fulfilled their dream to work in developing countries. They spent two years working as teachers in Malawi. Last year they embarked on a five-day trek through the Himalayas and raised more than £7,000 for the charity VSO.

Before he became a teacher, Mr Halley worked with the post office and was offered rapid promotion if he moved to London. He was in his early 30s at the time and, to the surprise of his colleagues, handed in his resignation. “I looked ahead into middle and old age, and I decided that was not the path I wanted to follow. I loved the Scottish countryside and I wanted my daughters to be educated in Scotland. I felt the quality of life was so much better. So I quit and went to university.”

“We were living on a quarter of my previous income, but I felt it was a wise decision. It is a good life here. I was able to become a teacher and we were able to foster children from disadvantaged families. We didn’t move to London in pursuit of the big bucks, but I think we’ve had a far richer life.”

Lorna Martin

Life after retirement

• One in three people want a smaller home when they retire.

• The Isles of Scilly have the highest proportion of over-50s – 52.4%. Greenwich, London, has the lowest – 25.5%.

• London is the least sought-after retirement location in the UK.

• Nine in 10 Scots want to stay in the same area when they retire. Only half of English people do.

• “Peace and quiet” scored highest as the thing most desired in retirement.

• A local pub was the least important.

• The unhappiest retirees are in the West Midlands, Manchester and London.

• Fife in Scotland was voted the best area in the UK for social care, followed by Lanarkshire and Cumbria.

• Fife was also voted as the best for access to places of worship.

• The older you are, the more likely to be happy in where you live: 75 and overs report 50% higher levels of satisfaction than 55- to 59-year-olds.

(Article source: The Guardian)

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