Cultivating strong communities
Social housing for older or more vulnerable people is not just about putting roofs over people’s heads
Christine O’Donoghue, a resident and volunteer at the Airmount allotments (left) and Eleanor Gaffney, a support worker with the housing agency, Respond!.
Airmount allotments in Co Waterford. The development is part of a wider trend of building inclusive communities for older and more vulnerable members of the community, rather than simply housing.
Like creeping thistle and nettles, despair can sometimes be invasive.
Which is why most days Christine O’Donoghue takes up her trowel and heads down to the allotments outside the Airmount community complex in Waterford.
Amid the raised beds, rockpool and newly built polytunnel, she tends to delicate rockery plants and thriving root vegetables.
“I love gardening,” says O’Donoghue. “But this is also a meeting place. It’s a place to have a chat, a cup of tea and help each other out and relax. It takes you out of yourself if you’re feeling down.”
Not so long ago, O’Donoghue was on heavy doses of psychiatric medication to help combat mental health problems. Hope seemed in short supply. Despair was an ever-present companion.
But these days, she has halved her medication. She’s getting out and mixing more with other people. Life, she says, feels like it’s beginning to flourish again.
For another resident, Sigmund Schittkowski, life often felt as if it was confined to the four walls of his apartment. Now, the simple act of gardening with others means strangers in the social housing complex he calls home are valued friends and companions.
“There was nothing here on this land in the two years since I’ve been here. But now, look at the place. I didn’t know anyone here when I moved in. Now, we meet up and help each other out.”
It’s a reminder that building social housing for older or more vulnerable people in the community isn’t just about putting roofs over people’s heads.
It’s also about building thriving, socially integrated communities for people who might otherwise feel isolated from wider society.
Airmount in Waterford – built by the not-for-profit group Respond! – is part of a broader movement of building inclusive communities where residents are at the heart, rather than the margins, of the community.
It involves ensuring easy access to shops and health services in the community; providing support workers to assist and advocate on the part of residents; mixing with people of other ages; and giving every possible assistance to enable people live in their homes for as long as possible.
This kind of inclusive, independent living is yielding impressive results.
Studies by the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology at NUI Galway show that residents in these settings have significantly better outcomes in areas such as mental health, wellbeing and physical health.
These kinds of simple, but effective, community supports are likely to prove increasingly important into the future.
It is official State policy to place a greater emphasis on care in the community for older people, those with disabilities and people with mental health problems.
Yet many of the supports which promote independent living are fraying at the edges.
In mental health, funding cuts in some cases mean professionals are being pulled out of community mental health teams and back into acute units or institutions.
Supports for older people have also been cut back, with fewer home-help hours and home-care packages available this year compared with previous years.
While these cuts can save money in the short term, they can lead to more older people in nursing homes, increased numbers of people with mental health problems in psychiatric hospitals and vulnerable people at a much higher risk of homelessness.
It’s a theme the former ombudsman Emily O’Reilly emphasised over recent months, hitting out at what she called the “warehousing” of elderly people in private nursing homes that were designed “primarily for commercial profit”.
The incentivisation of private nursing homes, allied to policy decisions to close down dozens of public ones, cued large-scale development in this area with homes that often had little physical or other connection with the community in which they were sited.
Over the years, Fr Pat Cogan – the founder of Respond! – has seen many policy documents come and go.
One that stands out is a 1988 study commissioned by the Department of Health, The Years Ahead, which set out an ambitious blueprint.
It stated that “it is fundamental to the welfare of the elderly that every elderly person has an opportunity to live in accommodation suited to his or her needs”.
He says it’s a vision we are still struggling to realise.
“As we get older, people are seen as more problematic. But that’s due to the mindset of society, rather than seeing older people as resources,” he says.
“We’re putting an emphasis on older people themselves and providing an awareness that they can contribute more than they contribute at the moment, and that active engagement is for their benefit and wider society,” Fr Cogan says.
He says it’s a false economy to cut care and support packages for people in the community. Instead, he says, we should be doing everything to ensure we provide all the assistance possible to allow older people or more marginalised members of society play as active a role in the community as possible.
“That’s where something like the allotments come in.
“The fellowship it has produced is even better than the plants.
“You can see and touch the plants here – but you can’t touch the friendship, care and concern that people have for one another.”