Housing's critical role in improving health

05 March 2012

Good housing is critical to good public health and with the creation of Public Health England, local authorities have important new responsibilities to improve public health and tackle health inequality

As people live longer, the likelihood of disability, illness and poor health also increases – and with 23% of older people living below the poverty line, housing associations are invaluable partners in promoting health and reducing health inequalities.

Where people live is one of the key determinants of health and good housing is in itself a public health investment. Settled housing improves health and reduces the incidence of respiratory and other diseases that are common among older people.

Housing is widely associated as a social determinant of health, but housing associations offer so much more than bricks and mortar. For example, they provide a range of services in the community to improve health and prevent ill-health. They directly contribute to the two overarching outcomes in the recently published Public Health Outcomes Framework: to increase healthy life expectancy and to reduce differences in healthy life expectancy through greater improvements in disadvantaged communities.

Several indicators in the framework are particularly relevant to organisations providing housing and care to older people such as those relating to falls, injuries, dementia and excess winter deaths. There are approximately 70,000 hip fractures annually and half of those with hip fractures never regain their former level of function, while one in five dies within three months. Falls and resultant fractures in people aged 65 and over account for over 4m bed days a year in England alone and associated costs are estimated at more than £2bn a year.

Housing associations such as Futures Homescape are reducing the human and financial impact of such injuries. Their health trainer programme with Derbyshire PCT to promote the health and wellbeing of older and vulnerable people involves training housing staff in public health to work as health trainers and health champions. An evaluation has found that this scheme supports individuals to make positive changes to their health and delivers considerable cost savings.

This is just one example of the diverse ways in which housing associations make an impact. There is a big spread of other initiatives such as home improvement agencies, handyman services and help at home schemes, which provide equipment and practical support to older people.

There is an increasing focus in policy debates on making services more accessible from the home. This can be particularly important in old age, as people are more likely to need a range of help and support from different agencies. Just as there is a drive to make health services available in the community, we need advice, information and support on how to improve health available through the home too.

This was written by Caroline Hawkings at the National Housing Federation and originally published by the Guardian Housing Network's Housing and Care Hub on 8 March 2012.

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