Awards announcement: building and developing suitable living environments and communities for an ageing population

In April 2021 we launched the first call under our 2020 – 2025 ­Strategic Framework, on the theme of building and delivering suitable living environments and communities for an ageing population. The call aimed to attract innovative proposals that supported collaborative projects between researchers and community partners, and that demonstrated not only scientific merit but also alignment to our key principles for research.

The call generated a large amount of interest and we received 32 applications at the Expression of Interest stage. Following assessment, 15 applicants were then invited to submit a full application, equating to a success rate of 47% (see our earlier blog piece summarising the feedback for unsuccessful applicants at this stage). We were really impressed by the quality of the full applications we received and, in particular, in those applications where it was clear that detailed planning had taken place between the research teams and community partners.

Full applications were externally peer reviewed – by both research and community reviewers –  after which applicants were given the opportunity to respond to feedback provided by the peer reviewers. The full applications, along with applicants’ responses, were then assessed by a panel of independent experts (on which some early career researchers had the opportunity to participate) and suitably qualified members of our Research Grants Committee. The panellists were:

  • Professor Bernard Conway (Chair of the Expert Panel and Dunhill Medical Trust Research Grants Committee)
  • Professor Alison Petch (Chair of the Dunhill Medical Trust)
  • Professor Andrew Clegg (University of Leeds)
  • Professor Diane Gyi (Loughborough University)
  • Professor Julienne Meyer (My Home Life, City University of London)
  • Professor Karen Lowton (University of Sussex)
  • Dr Laura Brown (University of Manchester)
  • Dr Melissa Fernandez Arrigoitia (Lancaster University)
  • Dr Ossie Stuart (Social Care Institute for Excellence)
  • Dr Petra Mäkelä (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine)
  • Dr Rachael Docking (Edinburgh Health and Social Care Partnership)
  • Sue Freeth (Dunhill Medical Trust Community Grants Committee)

We appreciate the large amount of time and effort that goes into assessing grant proposals, and we wouldn’t be able to keep funding high-quality research without the help of reviewers, panellists and committee members. We’d therefore like to take this opportunity to extend a huge ‘thank you’ to all those who contributed to the assessment of proposals under this call.

Of the 15 full applications, the following eight grants were awarded, equating to a success rate of 53% at this stage of the application process. Unsuccessful applicants received detailed feedback on their applications.

Please expand any of the project titles below to read more information, including the lay summary, project webpages and social media:

Lead applicant: Dr Manik Deepak Gopinath (The Open University)

Community partners: Bangla Housing Association, Housing Learning and Improvement Network (Housing LIN)

Award amount: £279,931

Duration: 36 months

Grant type: Project grant

Summary: While many ‘older’ people may prefer to age in place at home, familiar living arrangements can sometimes become inadequate as people age and need more support. The population aged from 50+ to 100+ have very different experiences depending on their health, resources, and location, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution to housing and health needs as people age. In thinking about what contributes towards suitable and comfortable environments for older people, the experiences and perspectives of black and minority ethnic groups tend to be missing.

This research focuses on one particular group with entrenched housing and health inequalities: Bangladeshi elders (‘probin’ in Bangla), who are more likely to live as social or private renters in low-income households, officially categorised as ‘overcrowded, in poorer, densely populated urban neighbourhoods: for instance, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, 33% are living in overcrowded multigenerational households. Chronic health conditions – particularly diabetes, cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure and stress – are common amongst Bangladeshi people aged over 50, exposing people to greater vulnerability during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A partnership between Bangla Housing Association (BHA), The Open University (OU), and Housing LIN, a learning and improvement network, will work within long-established Bangla communities in East London over 36 months. Guided by research advisory groups (from Bangla community; service providers) and using community co-researchers, the project will explore the challenges and benefits of multi-generational living, and living alone, and in age-related accommodation on health and wellbeing including what preferred and possible future housing options could look like. To gather the lived experiences of probin and their families, we will conduct telephone, online and face-to-face interviews and group discussions in Bengali, Sylheti, and English as needed. We will also interview key local providers and influencers (e.g., local authorities, housing and care providers, faith, and community leaders).


Lead applicant: Dr Niamh Murtagh (University College London)

Community partners: Bristol Charities, Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association, Legacy East Almshouse Partnership, Sir Josiah Mason Trust, Southwark Charities, The Whiteley Homes Trust, United St Saviour’s Charity

Award amount: £287,299

Duration: 30 months

Grant type: Project grant

Summary: Poor quality social housing for older people is costing the UK economy almost £500m each year. Almshouses (low-cost housing owned by charity trusts) offer valuable insights for improvement. The project, ARC for the Future, will identify factors which aid resilience of older-age communities in almshouse settings. Working closely with seven almshouse charities, we will seek evidence on three forms of resilience: (1) community or social resilience, (2) resilience in the built environment, and (3) resilience in governance models. By resilience, we mean the capacity to deal with change, both major events and ongoing changes, in ways that are adaptive and build stronger communities better able to deal with future change. Centred on residents’ experience, the project will develop a toolkit aimed at residents, staff, trustees and other stakeholders. In a context of social housing failures being debated in Parliament (House of Commons, 1st July 2021), ARC responds to the Social Housing White Paper (2020) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 on resilient, inclusive and sustainable human settlements.

Previous research by team members has identified the potential for almshouse charities to help meet housing need and complement local strategies for housing, care and support. However, we also identified the lack of evidence on the benefits of almshouses for residents and the wider community. There is little systematic information about what fosters community in older living settings or what governance structures cope best with change. Government has recognised both the potential benefits and the absence of systematic evidence in an All-Party Parliamentary Group on almshouses. The proposed study aims to address these gaps, investigating the community, control and context of almshouse charities in depth.

Working with three almshouse charities as key case studies, and a further four charities with a lighter touch, ARC will have access to a range of sites and scales to deal with the very wide range of accommodation, settings and organisation of almshouse charities. A total of 72 interviews and four focus groups will be conducted with residents, complemented by 26 interviews with staff, trustees and stakeholders, and 15 days of site observations. The project will create a Residents Advisory Group to consult on the content and approach to interviews and focus groups. A Professionals Advisory Group of 14 experts, drawn from the almshouse movement and networks in housing and social care for older people, will give advice, and provide multiple channels for dissemination of findings.

Lead applicant: Dr Mark Hammond (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Community partners: Community Led Action and Saving Support, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GM Ageing Hub), One Manchester, Southway Housing Trust, Stockport Homes

Award amount: £311,256

Duration: 30 months

Grant type: Project grant

Summary: This research aims to investigate how older people and social housing providers can collaborate on programmes that support people to remain healthy and socially active in their community as they grow older.

Social housing tenants have significantly worse health than other groups of older people, and many are impacted by social conditions in their neighbourhoods that negatively affect their quality of life. Many social housing providers now recognise the need to rethink how they can support their older tenants, recognising the need to address the wider determinants of poor health such as social isolation, poverty and inequality alongside their existing focus on providing safe and accessible homes. In response to this, the project will explore how the WHO’s ‘Age-Friendly Cities and Communities’ approach, which calls for older people to be at the centre of the decision-making processes regarding issues that affect their lives, can be used to inform new programmes and initiatives in deprived communities.

The project will use a participatory action research approach, which means the researcher will work ‘with’ (rather ‘to’, ‘on’ or ‘for’) older people to contribute to real initiatives that will improve older people’s quality of life. Older people will be supported to become co-researchers in each neighbourhood, ensuring that the research process and its outcomes address the needs and aspirations of the local residents. Training and support will be provided to co-researchers to ensure each project continues beyond the 30-month timeframe of the research programme.

The research will support the development of three case study initiatives in Greater Manchester. The three neighbourhoods were chosen because of local factors that can negatively impact older people’s quality of life, such as gentrification, racial tensions, or high levels of social isolation. In each of the case studies, older people will work with a social housing provider to co-create a programme that identifies and responds to specific challenges and opportunities in each neighbourhood. These will address both the physical environments that older people live in and opportunities for social participation in the community.

The programme will be developed by an interdisciplinary team from the Manchester Urban Ageing Research Group (MUARG), Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and members of the Greater Manchester Housing Providers network (GMHP). This unique collaboration aims to develop a robust evidence base and a series of practical examples to support social housing providers to develop their own ‘age-friendly’ initiatives.

Lead applicant: Professor Andrew Clark (University of Salford)

Community partner: Inspiring Communities Together

Award amount: £125,151

Duration: 24 months

Grant type: Project grant

Summary: This project will provide new insight to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on older people’s social connections and develop evidence-based recommendations on how places can continue to support older people.

Across the UK, older people are reported to have been disproportionately negatively affected by the disease and restrictions imposed to limit its risks. This includes reduced physical activity and, potentially, heightened isolation. However, we do not yet know the full impact of the pandemic on how older people can remain socially connected in the places where they live, nor do we understand how age-friendly initiatives can encourage and support older people’s social (re)connections over coming years.

The project will address three questions:

• How have older people made connections within and around their environments during the pandemic and what can we learn from this as we move out of it?
• What has the impact of Covid-19 been on older people and their living environments; and how can the development and adaption of new and existing support activities help age-friendly places to succeed?
• How have activities for older people changed and might these continue to adapt post Covid-19?

We will work with Age-Friendly Salford to test out how places can continue to be made age-friendly as the UK moves to the next phase of Covid-19. We will do this by collecting and analysing new data gathered using a range of techniques in five phases:

• Phase 1: Focus groups with individuals from organisations that support older people or develop policies to support them
• Phase 2: Interviews with older people to gather new insight to experiences of accessing and engaging with remote support and engagement activities
• Phase 3: Completing an audit of age-friendly locations, services and businesses
• Phase 4: Engaging in a series of ‘Conversations about Ageing’, led by older people, based on the findings from Phases 1, 2 and 3
• Phase 5: Developing recommendations and informing others of findings

Older people will be involved in all stages of the project, from contributing ideas and sharing their experiences to working as co-researchers on the team. They will be supported to undertake an assessment of how age-friendly activities adapt in an emerging post-pandemic UK using an age-friendly standards toolkit. The group will also work with the project team to host a series of ‘Conversations about Ageing’ with service providers, policy makers and other older people.

Lead applicant: Dr Chris McGinley (Royal College of Art)

Community partner: The Guinness Partnership

Award amount: £281,081

Duration: 24 months

Grant type: Project grant

Summary: People of all ages must be able to live in homes that suit their needs, where they can stay connected with friends, neighbours and communities. Homes must accommodate the best physical, social and digital surroundings supporting people to grow older and flourish in the best possible ways.

Technology solutions for staying connected come in many different forms, such as landline telephones, smartphones, and advanced sensor-activated alarm systems. Whatever the form, it’s vital digital technologies are designed for the people using them. This means ensuring digital technologies actually meet the needs of older people in the future. We need to gain a far better understanding of these needs, most importantly involving older people in the discussions.

This project will work with older people living in housing provided by the Guinness Partnership. In collaboration with the research team, older people will explore and help design what the future of technology should look like to stay truly connected and an essential part of their communities.

Design is sometimes thought of as just for designers, but this is not the case. Good design and designers can take an inclusive approach, involving others as co-designers who bring their own lived experience into design research processes. So, bringing together the lived experience of older people and the professional expertise of designers, which offers the scope for addressing real needs through design-led solutions.

In this collaborative project we will use proven methods and tools from design research to target some of these real needs. By doing so, we aim to substantially improve the lives of the people living in the Guinness Partnership’s housing. We also aim to contribute new knowledge to the design of future technology, which will benefit future generations of older people and society at large. Lastly, the design disciplines will gain new knowledge and better practices for collaborating with older people when designing for our future selves.

Lead applicant: Dr Sophia Amenyah (Bournemouth University)

Community partner: United St Saviour’s Charity

Award amount: £298,553

Duration: 24 months

Grant type: Post-doctoral fellowship

Summary: Although the average UK citizen enjoys longer life expectancy, quality of life for older people is very unequal. For many, a longer life does not mean an active and healthy old age. Older people living in socially deprived circumstances may experience twenty fewer years of good health, and their health and wellbeing may be reduced by poor diet, limited exercise and social isolation.

The inner-city neighbourhood of Bermondsey is in the London borough of Southwark. Whilst many surrounding neighbourhoods have seen large-scale urban regeneration, Bermondsey has experienced little obvious investment in local infrastructure and housing and is ranked as one of the UK’s poorest neighbourhoods. Poor transport links mean that many residents have limited opportunities to travel beyond the borough, restricting access to supermarkets and leisure activities.

Living in Bermondsey can therefore be a struggle, compounded by poor quality housing, and limited opportunities to meet others. Older people have limited housing choices, and social housing for the over 60’s is often seen as separate from the local community rather than offering an integrated community resource.

The aim of this research is to explore how multigenerational socially-inclusive activities can be created with older people around food growing, cooking and meal sharing. This will be based in a new community facility attached to an over-60’s social housing scheme in Bermondsey focused on improving the health, wellbeing and social connectedness of older people.

Food is a social leveller. It unites people and overcomes community divisions. Uniquely, this research will ensure older people are fully engaged as co-researchers to make sure it is meaningful to them and future generations.

The impact of this research will be far-reaching. It will inform new research. It will shape best practice by improving understanding of what activities have the most impact on improving quality of life in older people. Finally, it will have an important role in influencing policy makers, architects and commissioners of social housing and buildings so that the benefits identified by this study can be replicated nationally.

Lead applicant: Professor Mark Hawley (University of Sheffield)

Community partner: Johnnie Johnson Housing

Award amount: £390,032

Duration: 36 months

Grant type: Project grant including a PhD studentship

Summary: New technologies, and the products and services they enable, hold the promise of improving the care provided to older people, in terms of both its quality and its coverage. However, technical innovation is difficult: most new products/services fail, even when the underlying idea is sound. A chief cause of failure is a lack of understanding of the real needs, wishes and capabilities of target users: new products/services developed in the R&D lab tend not to survive contact with the complexity of people’s everyday lives. This represents a waste of time, effort and resources as well as a missed opportunity to improve lives.

The solution to this problem is, on the face of it, obvious: include end users, and anyone else with an interest, in development, and at as early a stage as possible. In practice, however, this is not as easy as it sounds. Engaging and involving users can be difficult and costly, requiring particular skills and resources and raising ethical concerns, especially when the primary users – the recipients of care – can be ill or vulnerable, and there is a variety of secondary users and interested parties: family, friends and informal carers, health and care professionals, housing providers, care commissioners, and so on.

In this project we propose to address this challenge by developing a “living lab” and complementary methods to guide development and testing of new products/services. In contrast to the sterile, closed environment of the R&D lab, a living lab is composed of real people – all potential users of the technology – living their lives in their own homes and places of work and leisure, who participate in all stages of the innovation process to help develop practical solutions to meet their real needs and aspirations. In this way, products/services are developed in an open and inclusive manner with the active input of users.

We will develop, with the participants, acceptable methods to identify and appraise promising emerging technologies and candidate products/services in a systematic way. The results of these appraisals will guide selection and purchase decisions, and steer development and support investment. Because this is valuable information, we believe that the living lab can become economically self-sufficient, with an equitable distribution of surplus income. Furthermore, since by its very nature this approach strives to be inclusive, we see it as a means for including those currently excluded or marginalised by existing care provision.


Social media: @TELLAB_UK

Lead applicant: Professor Mark Hollands (Liverpool John Moores University)

Community partner: Johnnie Johnson Housing

Award amount: £266,739

Duration: 36 months

Grant type: Project grant

Summary: This project will use new technology to study how older adults move around their homes in order to create a new architecture and design tool that can make homes safer.

Comfortable and safe homes are important for independent living. However, home falls are a leading cause of injury and death. Falls are more common in older adults, as age-related changes to the body can make it harder to deal with fall hazards. For example, falls often occur following trips on raised surfaces, yet common eye conditions, such as cataracts, can make it harder to see such hazards.

Growing evidence suggests that we can make homes safer, using low-cost changes to their design. These can include things like improving lighting on stairs, and/or modifications to flooring. However, people that design homes often focus on visually pleasing features, e.g. soft or inappropriate lighting, while neglecting safety features, such as stair handrails. One reason for this oversight is that traditional design education (e.g. in universities) rarely focuses on safety research, and designers’ tools needed to inform safety decisions are often limited.

We intend to address this issue by developing a new computer-based design approach, where designers can receive guidance on their planned design within their existing software that can generate photorealistic images of homes. We will use this technology to create images that show what an occupant would see as they move around a home. Designers could then ask what features of their design are problematic, with the computer suggesting, e.g. “based on real-world data (from this study), the floor-pattern will reduce (or increase) fall risk”.

To achieve this, we must go into older adult homes and use wearable sensor technology to measure how older adults are moving during their everyday activities. We will use this information to identify hazardous areas of their homes. We will then upgrade features of the homes to make them less hazardous, with a team of tradespersons, e.g. by installing appropriate stair décor and/or light bulbs. Finally, we will use our results, and the detailed information that we collect, to build our computer-based design tool.

Our research project will have these benefits: 1) make current participants homes safer; 2) reveal how to make homes safer in general; 3) provide new methods for architects/designers to enhance design practice, helping to make new homes safer more widely, and with long-term costs reduced because of fewer changes needed in the future.

Huge congratulations to all of the successful applicants. It was a very rigorous process and we look forward to working with you and sharing your learning, to ensure your projects deliver real benefits to the lives of older people.


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