Government can expect ‘grey vote’ backlash if it doesn’t take senior living seriously

We lack any kind of specialist senior living or independent retirement community sector in Ireland

Ireland is very poorly served with solutions for older homeowners who may be looking to downsize in retirement or to live somewhere that can provide better security, facilities and care services as and when they need them. Photograph: iStock

Ireland is very poorly served with solutions for older homeowners who may be looking to downsize in retirement or to live somewhere that can provide better security, facilities and care services as and when they need them. Photograph: iStock

 

Growing old is all the rage these days. Average life expectancy in Ireland in 1950 was just 64, and is now 82 and rising year on year. Increasing prosperity, and better healthcare outcomes, mean the number of people aged over 65 is projected to rocket from about 650,000 today, to 1.6 million in under 30 years’ time.

If you are reaching retirement age, or perhaps have parents close to it, you might be starting to think about this extended period of life where the pressures of work fade away and you have the chance to indulge in hobbies and spend more quality time with family.

But where will you or your loved ones live? And how will you or they prepare for that time when you lose some independence and have growing healthcare needs that require monitoring and support?

Tom Sheridan is development director with Tetrarch Homes, which is planning a number of senior living developments in the greater Dublin area

More than 10 per cent of people aged 65 and over in New Zealand, Australia and the US now live in purpose-built developments that provide an alternative to the stark choice sometimes faced in Ireland between remaining in the family home or moving into a nursing home. In the UK, they are catching up and beginning to address the clear need to do something through planning changes and policy supports for the sector.

Specialist

But Ireland is very poorly served with solutions for older homeowners who may be looking to downsize in retirement or to live somewhere that can provide better security, facilities and care services as and when they need them. Despite the enormous growth in our over 65s population, we lack any kind of specialist senior living or independent retirement community sector in Ireland.

Bear in mind that the number of people over the age of 65 in Ireland will increase by nearly a million by 2051

For many in our ageing population, the idea of a nursing home, however well run, is not how they want to live out their later years. Internationally, nursing homes are increasingly used for end-of-life care, when at home or independent care (the type of care available in a senior living development) is no longer an option.

To drive the delivery of the senior living sector in Ireland we urgently need a new planning category with a defined use equivalent to the UK categories of retirement housing and housing with care.

Senior living isn’t housing in an institutional setting, but accommodation that mirrors that of a traditional residential environment. Best-in-class senior living developments offer real communities with an emphasis on residents’ mental and physical wellbeing, including high-quality communal spaces and shared amenities (libraries, gardens, access to walks and trails). They also allow residents the chance to avail of increasing levels of care assistance and medical supports – discretely offered on site – as and when these are needed.

Of course, in your 60s and 70s you will hopefully be fully independent, but bear in mind that the number of people over the age of 65 in Ireland will increase by nearly a million by 2051. At that stage, most of us will need some form of additional support.

The care and support available doesn’t have to come in a nursing home setting, but it also shouldn’t mean a dependence on the informal care model that the European Commission has said Ireland is over-reliant on. An endless rotation of carers trying to help us stay in a family home that might have been the right place to bring up three kids when we were in our 30s and 40s, but is now an isolating burden, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Improvements

Residents of senior living developments report marked improvements in their wellbeing from living in a secure community with their peers. It’s not just the residents who will benefit, as the senior living model will result in reduced numbers of overnight hospital stays due to the mid-level medical care capable of being provided on site – this, in turn, will reduce healthcare costs for the State. In the UK it has been demonstrated that overnight hospital stays of senior living residents have reduced by 38 per cent.

Research by the Housing Agency here suggests that at least 15 per cent of over 65s would like to live in housing that is more age friendly, meaning that in 10 years the market for this type of accommodation would comprise of more than 150,000 people.

Senior living is one area where a clear need has a clear remedy that is within our grasp

While the narrative and political focus for some time has, quite rightly, been around the delivery of social and affordable housing, if we are to embrace the notion of Housing for All it needs to include a mandate to deliver appropriate housing for what is fast becoming the largest and most overlooked cohort of our population.

This mandate isn’t in any way evident today and in the absence of a clear direction from Government it is unlikely to become a high priority for local authorities anytime soon. It is now time for the Government to introduce senior living as a new planning class and to mandate local authorities to ensure that the needs of our rapidly ageing population are met.

The housing debate is a complex one, in most cases without easy solutions, but senior living is one area where a clear need has a clear remedy that is within our grasp. If we don’t act very soon, we will be talking about another form of housing crisis in due course. The Government can then expect a justifiable backlash from the “grey vote” as it becomes clear that the specific housing needs of such a powerful cohort are not being given the consideration or investment required.

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