Accommodation – degrees of independence

Independence is probably one of those concepts that means different things to different people, and our views on independence may well change as we age too. We’ll talk about financial independence in a separate Financial Security article – this article is more about independent living.

Many of those interviewed as part of Words of Wisdom said they wanted to maintain their independence for as long as possible, and didn’t want to be a burden on others. So, what are they trying to seek independence from? The clues point to the fact that they want to remain autonomous in their own homes, without relying too much on others, or being forced to move into a care home.

With uncertainly around what lies ahead from a social care perspective, aiming to be as independent as possible for as long as possible is probably a good strategy.

We’ll look at this under 3 headings:

  • Independent living
  • Living independently with support
  • Facilities to support independence

Independent living

This may depend on the starting point, but I see living independently as maintaining the status quo for as long as possible, whether living alone, as a couple, or with family or friends.

As we get older we won’t necessarily be as physically fit as we once were (see health & exercise intros). Things that we don’t think much about today may become challenging, such as climbing stairs or washing.

Furthermore, as we get older, we may get more stuck in our ways and we may not see other possibilities or be open to consider them. I’ll be covering more of this in a future article on mindset.

If you live with others then independence may be more naturally prolonged as you can rely on them to support you. However, this can be a rude shock if you outlive them.

A friend’s parents were getting older. His father was still physically quite fit and able and looked after his mother who was showing signs of dementia, although wouldn’t seek outside help. The father unfortunately developed cancer and died after a relatively short battle. The mother, sadly somewhat oblivious to the father’s passing doggedly carried on living independently for another year, at risk to herself and causing strain on her worried family. She has recently been moved to a care home as she can no longer look after herself.

Another tactic is each playing to your strengths and compensating for each other’s weaker areas.

My uncle and late aunt were in their early seventies when my aunt became ill and died soon after a short illness. Until this point they had shared the household and administrative chores between them and nursed each other back to health following injuries and operations. My uncle has had to learn a number of new skills in the past two years, but is generally getting on well by himself. Fortunately, he was always the chef!

Those living alone may need to make adjustments sooner rather than later in order to prolong longer term independence.

My mother was unfortunate enough to require a hip replacement in her late 50s and was even more unfortunate when it wasn’t entirely successful. Living on her own in a two-storey house, she soon realised that this wouldn’t be suitable without some significant adaptations. Fortunately, we helped her move to a suitable alternative (a smaller one-storey bungalow) a number of years ago, which means that she’s been pretty much independent in the meantime, and hopefully will be for the foreseeable future. She has no family living close by and relies on regular carer visits.

Living independently with support

Wanting to maintain much of one’s previous independence, whilst admitting that a little support is required is commendable. Support is not a one-size fits all solution and can come in different/ing forms, such as:

  • Family, friends, neighbours running errands and looking out for you
  • Paid support
  • Voluntary support

Support can be practical, social or medical in nature. Examples include gardening, dog walking, getting shopping, taking to appointments, social visits etc.

Some support can be claimed for, such as from NHS or benefit payments, although much of it is privately funded and probably will be more so in the foreseeable future. This is typically arranged through agencies.

Sheltered / wardened accommodation could be a step in the same direction. This is where residents would typically buy or rent a room or flat and live independently, yet have facilities and support at hand if required. There are various types available and this article explores the differences between independent living and assisted living.

Facilities to support independence

In the UK, there are Council Grants available for home adaptations to provide facilities for disabled people.

Home-owners or council tenants (or housing association tenants) can apply for grants. Every applicant is means-tested (income and savings) to decide whether they can afford a financial contribution towards any adaptation. Home-owners (who have any savings) are likely to have to contribute towards the adaptations, whereas council tenants, who are disabled and in receipt of means-tested benefits may have their facilities provided free.

Disabled people who believe adaptations to their homes will make their lives easier can often apply to the Social Care department of their local council. Unless their need is recommended as urgent, disabled people may wait a long time to be assessed by an occupational therapist, be means-tested, then if successful for a Council Grant, for the work to be completed.

My mother waited 2.5 years from the first enquiry about the enlargement of her bathroom and provision of a shower for a disabled person, until the work was performed. She was also provided with a concrete ramp with handrails to allow her access to her bungalow by wheel chair, walker or crutches. For a few years before that, the Council loaned her a metal ramp. 

Other Facilities for disabled people include installation of handrails, wherever required in homes, a variety of 4 wheeled walkers and wheelchairs, and kitchen utensils and cutlery for disabled people.

Over the last few decades a number of companies have started to supply equipment and gadgets to help older and/or disabled people. Many of these have been derived from occupational health needs and may previously only have been available on prescription, but now can be easily purchased online or in specialised shops. These help users to maintain their independence for as long as possible and can include walking frames, reaching aids, handrails, adapted toilet seats and so on.

Other options include safety alarms and mobile phones, but these of course need to be carried and have batteries in order to act as appropriate protection! There are also other technology solutions that have been developed to help older people live independently.


So, we’ve seen that there are a number of different degrees of independence. Much of this depends on our starting point, how early and willing we are to adapt, as well as our physical condition.

I hope this will provide some food for thought, either for you as you get older, or for your elderly parents or other relatives. Please leave your comments and let me know your thoughts!


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