Ireland’s empty-nesters: ‘A big home is okay when you have kids’

Many elderly homeowners would gladly downsize. But to where?

Simon Carswell speaks to residents at McAuley Place in Naas, Co.Kildare, a managed development of apartments providing centrally located housing for older people who are capable of independent living. Video: Bryan O'Brien


The move, when it eventually came, just over a year ago, was an emotional wrench for Sheila and Peadar Keogh. The property they were selling in a suburb of Limerick was more than just a house: it was a family home of 40 years where they had raised their children.

The couple, both 75 and retired doctors, were encouraged to move by those four now-adult children. Their five-bedroom home in Castletroy had simply become too big to maintain. It had a lot of stairs, a big garden to tend, and a stove and an open fire that required coal to be hauled inside. “Our children kept on feeling that we should move before we couldn’t move,” Sheila says.

The couple wanted to stay in the area, close to friends and shops they knew so well, yet for years they could find only tiny apartments. After three years of searching they found a 1980s bungalow that they then renovated.

We didn’t want to move to another part of the city, because you have made your friends there, and you know the shops

It has worked out quite well. Their heating bills fell from €2,500 to €800 a year. They have smaller garden than before, and all their friends are still nearby. “That was our main objective: to stay where we are. We didn’t want to move to another part of the city, because you have made your friends there, and you know the shops,” she says.

Vera Butler moved for the same reasons. Maintaining a four-bedroom house and garden in Templeogue, in southwest Dublin, was too much for the 82-year-old widow, whose nine children left home years ago.

“Big homes are okay when you are married and you have children. They are not okay when your children fly the nest and you are left to do all the graft work yourself,” she says.

Butler found an apartment that was coming up at McAuley Place, a housing complex for over-65s in the renovated Sisters of Mercy convent in the middle of Naas, Co Kildare. She sold her house during the summer and paid “key money”, of €40,000, that guarantees her one of the development’s 53 apartments for the rest of her life. On top of this she pays €112 a week in rent.

“I didn’t feel at all sad leaving, because I knew the time had come,” Butler says about her home in Dublin. “I was sensible enough to know that I knew in my heart I had to go.”

For Margharita Solon, the founder of McAuley Place, creating a vibrant living space in the heart of the community for older people was not just about ensuring that “amazing old people” were not segregated away in nursing homes; it was also about helping ease the homelessness crisis by freeing up family homes and local-authority housing as older people downsized. Solon believes the Naas complex could be a template for other towns.

“It could support older people to remain independent and integrated for longer. Loads more people would choose this option if the choice was there for them, but it isn’t. It would realise more houses, more social houses,” she says, sitting in the busy tea rooms of McAuley Place, surrounded by people young and old.

Empty bedrooms

The number of empty bedrooms in large houses is a stark statistic of a housing crisis that has left almost 100,000 households – a term that can refer to single people as well as to families – on public-housing waiting lists and 8,492 people, including 3,194 children, homeless.

In 2016 146,000 households with seven rooms or more were home to a single person or to a married or cohabiting couple. That is about 8 per cent of all Irish households. The Central Statistics Office also counted 121,720 “empty nest” families – a family of married or cohabiting couples without children where the woman is aged 45-64 – split 54-46 between urban and rural areas.

There is both scope for greater movement in the housing market, to encourage older people to free up large houses by downsizing, and an appetite among older people for smaller, more suitable homes.

Thirty-one per cent of older couples live in houses with seven or more rooms

Housing and Ireland’s Older Population, a report last year by the Economic and Social Research Institute, found that 40.6 per cent of older people living alone were in houses with up to four rooms, whereas the figure for people living with children or grandchildren was 15.8 per cent. When it came to older couples, 30.9 per cent lived in houses with seven or more rooms.

Although downsizing offers opportunities, it would be simplistic to suggest that moving empty nesters out of overly large houses would free up enough homes to solve the crisis. It ignores what older people want, the complexities of their situations, the dangers of social isolation in later life and the shortage of suitable homes.

Older people, like so many others in search of housing, are not being served by a market that is missing key segments, and the problem will only get worse with our rapidly ageing population. As a society we have been growing steadily older since the 1980s. The 2016 census found that the number of people aged 65 and over had increased by 102,174 in five years, more than twice the rate of the 15-64 age group.

The percentage of over-65s in the population is projected to double, to almost 25 per cent, by 2050, while the number of people aged 80 and over is expected to rise from 130,000 to 458,000, an increase of 250 per cent.

“There are 20,000 people every year turning 65, and that is generating a potential new market in downsizing accommodation and clustered-development accommodation,” says Anne Connolly, chief executive of Ireland Smart Ageing Exchange, or Isax, which with the Housing Agency commissioned the research behind those figures.

Downsizer: Vera Butler, a resident of McAuley Place, in Naas, Co Kildare. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Downsizer: Vera Butler, a resident of McAuley Place, in Naas, Co Kildare. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Where do we go?

Ireland lags behind the United Kingdom and the United States, which have lots of big retirement communities with assisted living and medical care. The Isax research found that Ireland could have a market for up to 100,000 smaller “age-friendly” homes – a currently unmet need worth a staggering €25 billion. Building these properties would help free up the equivalent of at least six years’ supply for first-time buyers, its report said.

It also found, when it surveyed more than 500 older people, that they only want to move to more manageable homes if those homes are in their own communities. The vast majority – 88 per cent – said they were very happy in their current home, although more than 20 per cent said the type of house they lived in made day-to-day life more demanding. Most wanted to stay put because they did not want to leave their locality (more than 50 per cent) or their friends and neighbours (28 per cent).

We have got the family home, the nursing home and the funeral home, but we don’t have all the other kinds of homes you need over the course of your life

“It would be very attractive to a lot of older people,” says Justin Moran of the advocacy charity Age Action. “But when we talk to our members the question that always comes up when we talk about downsizing to them is: where do they go? We generally cannot answer that question.”

A shortage of appropriate homes for older downsizers has exposed an obvious gap in housing. “Putting it dramatically, we have got the family home, the nursing home and the funeral home, but we don’t have all the other kinds of homes that you need over the course of your life,” says Ronan Lyons, the Trinity College Dublin economist, who was one of the authors of the Isax report.

He estimates that the gap in housing for older people accounts for up to 25 per cent of the housing shortage. “That is probably enough to take the sting out of what often gets viewed as the short end of the housing shortage, which is the couple getting married who want to have kids and go to try to find a family home,” he says.

Lyons reckons that, contrary to public perception, there were about a fifth more family homes than required, but that they were housing people they were not designed for: students, young professionals and empty nesters. If enough were freed up, then it would help with finding accommodation for families.

Downsizing can be emotional topic, however. When the ESRI published its report last year, Age Action had its busiest day for calls from older people. They were not happy. The ESRI even had people dropping into its offices to complain. “They reacted to this sense that they are partly responsible for the housing crisis because they are living in these too-big homes. Not all our members would like to downsize, but some would,” says Moran.

Lyons understands, on a personal level too, the sensitivities around encouraging older people to leave large homes; his mother downsized to an apartment last year. “I have written about this a few times, and occasionally you get this response: ‘How dare you try to throw people out of their homes?’ It is really the opposite of that: it is not the people who wouldn’t move regardless; it is the people who would move if they had the chance. They are far less vocal, but they exist.”

‘Bog standard’ homes

Alan Barrett, the ESRI’s director, and another of the authors of last year’s report, cautions against responding to the overall housing crisis by “lashing up” as many “bog standard” estates of three- and four-bedroom semi-detached homes as possible. Instead, he says, policymakers must consider the need for specific types of housing to address the “very limited options for older people”.

“It raises the issue: should we not be giving a little bit more thought about how you house a population, in about 15 years’ time, where the proportion of people over the age of 80 is going to be expanding.”

The ESRI recognises a major challenge: the risk of social isolation and harm to health when older people leave communities where they are close to family, friends and amenities. “Loneliness is as big a killer as some of the diseases,” says Barrett, who consulted gerontologists for the ESRI report.

Remaining close to everything they know is critical for most downsizers. “Meeting new people can be difficult at any age, but it can be particularly difficult for an older person,” says Justin Moran of Age Action.

McAuley Place had to be in the heart of the community, could not be medical or sterile, and had to be an intergenerational, community space

This was the main reason Margharita Solon set up McAuley Place in 2011. A former nursing-home nurse, she saw the psychological and emotional impact of a stroke on a neighbour who ended up in care far from his home town even though his wife could not drive. “The care he was getting was actually compounding his unwellness,” she says.

Solon designed the project as a place where she would want to live as an older woman. It had to be in heart of her community so she could go to the same shops, doctor and dentist. It could not be medical or sterile, and it should not be solely for older people; it had to be an intergenerational, community space. Solon is proud that it is just 138 steps from the front door to the nearest bus stop in the middle of Naas. “Even if I am on a walking frame it keeps me well and mobile and integrated into the community.

Downsizer: Phil Fitzgerald, who lives at McAuley Place, in Naas, Co Kildare. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Downsizer: Phil Fitzgerald, who lives at McAuley Place, in Naas, Co Kildare. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Elderly campus

McAuley Place has tea rooms that are open to the public, a community centre, and an arts and culture centre that even hosts weddings. The complex is a hub of activity that draws people of all ages to events ranging from t’ai chi and yoga to homework clubs and bingo.

“People saw a building with elderly people and so assumed it was a nursing home,” says its general manager, Mark Hazzard. “It is far from that. I almost refer to it as a college campus for the elderly.”

Funded with €7 million of public money, 75 per cent of the apartments are for social-housing applicants. The remaining 25 per cent are for private residents, and the waiting list of 60 reflects both the demand for this type of housing and its shortage.

Phil Fitzgerald, who is 80, lived alone, several kilometres outside the town, for three years after her husband died. She loved the house, but three bad winters meant she had to move. She is renting out her family home and using the income to help her pay for her apartment at McAuley Place. “It was the isolation, being lonely and not driving. It was impossible to live out there.” Fitzgerald loves the independence and company that come with life at the complex.

Hazzard says they receive regular visits from groups around the country that are considering replicating McAuley Place in derelict buildings in their own towns. The hardest part is raising the funds to build them, he says.

The Abhaile Project is retrofitting houses: downstairs becomes a living space for the older occupant, upstairs becomes a rental-earning apartment 

One company that has plenty of cash to fund developments is Cairn Homes, which has spied the untapped market for downsizers. Years of undersupply has left a shortage of manageable, cheaper-to-run properties for empty nesters in large homes, says its chief executive, Michael Stanley.

More than half of the people who have bought apartments and town houses at the firm’s new development, Marianella, in Rathgar in south Dublin, are empty nesters from the Dublin 6 area. “For the last 10 years anybody whose family has left home might be in larger homes than they need. Some are in period properties, and they are expensive to maintain. The difficulty is that nobody has been building apartments in that time, so they haven’t had a choice. I wasn’t surprised to get that demand,” he says. He expects huge demand in coming years for well-located apartments for downsizers and empty nesters who want to stay in their communities.

Smart ageing

Others are looking at innovative solutions in parts of Dublin with ageing residents and declining overall populations. The not-for-profit Abhaile Project has been working with the architects Dermot Bannon and Ciarán Ferrie to reconfigure family-sized homes for “smart ageing” in areas such as Beaumont, Coolock and Raheny, where many older people live alone but are emotionally attached to their houses, streets and communities.

(The area with the highest proportion of people over 65 in Dublin in 2016 was the suburb of Terenure, where almost 37 per cent of the area’s population are past retirement age, according to last year’s census.)

The group came up with a design that would “retrofit the houses to futureproof them”: the downstairs becomes a living space for the older occupant while the upstairs becomes a one-bedroom apartment for a young professional to live in, paying rent to their downstairs neighbour. In the UK this has been called downsizing in situ: it brings company and security to an older person, who can still live independently, while quickly creating much-needed rental homes within existing houses.

“It would generate a lot of one-bedroom rental capacity,” says Michelle Moore, the principal behind the project, which is renovating two family homes in north Dublin in a pilot scheme. “We do think there is enough room in these houses to create these two independent living units.”

The prospect of rental income from a reconfigured family home would be another incentive for older people to downsize. In many cases the savings to be made from managing a smaller home are what encourage people to move. In other countries another incentive is the desire to avoid high taxes on underused properties. That does not arise with Ireland’s relatively low taxes. “The stick is not going to work, so it has to be the carrot,” says Ronan Lyons, who suggests a stamp-duty holiday or decade-long exemption from local property tax on new homes.

A tax measure that benefited downsizers would also alert developers to the opportunities of building high-quality apartments on relatively small suburban sites for buyers who have typically paid off mortgages on large homes. “Tax measures may be worth it for the symbolism and the attention they draw,” Lyons says.

Mind-boggling bureaucracy

Where developers have not considered the opportunities, the vacuum is being filled by local residents. William Cuddy, a 71-year-old chartered accountant from Glounthaune, outside Cork city, calls Glounthaune Homes Trust, which he has set up with 11 other prospective downsizers, a self-help organisation.

The dozen residents, who are all former chairmen of the local community association, want to pool resources to build a retirement or community village of 12 smaller homes. Their current houses are “a bit beyond them”, he says, and moving could help others. “What our little project does is free up houses, the larger type of houses, for which there is a demand,” he says.

Everyone was patting us on the back, telling us it is a great idea to build our own smaller homes, but when it comes to pounds, shilling and pence they run like scalded cats

The project would be self-financing. Each house could cost each of the 12 residents €300,000; if they “walk out or are carried out” they or their families will get the €300,000 back, according to Cuddy.

The group have been looking for sites but have been slowed down by red tape. They are struggling to be signed off as an “approved housing body” that could secure bank loans at favourable rates. “The bureaucracy is absolutely mind-boggling along the way,” Cuddy says. “Everyone was patting us on the back and telling us they think it is a great idea, but when it comes to pounds, shilling and pence they run like scalded cats.”

He sees a logic in downsizing: why would a single person want to live in a four-bedroom house? “The whole thing of scaling down is like this: retired people don’t buy an S-Class Mercedes-Benz; they would be happy to drive a Ford Fiesta,” he says.

The obstacles to moving are not always financial, however. Sheila Keogh found the decluttering one of the hardest parts of downsizing from her home in Limerick. “You are going through all the memories and everything,” she says.

She found herself going back out to the skip and removing things that her sons had thrown out. The fact that nobody wanted the family dining table was particularly difficult to accept. “These are upsetting problems to realise,” she says. “Furniture that you thought was important nobody wants.”

But she thinks she and her husband made the right move – and should even have downsized earlier. “The time had come to move. It is very important to do it when you are able and not wait until you are too old. Maybe we should have done it 10 years earlier,” she says. “You should do it shortly after you retire, not in your 70s. Do it in your 60s. We have a few friends who regret not doing it, and they are too old now.”

Planning ahead: Lorcan Sirr, who points out the benefits of “temporal” ownership. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Planning ahead: Lorcan Sirr, who points out the benefits of 'temporal' ownership. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


Older people might be unwilling to sell the family home, which is usually their only significant asset, because they worry that doing so would rob their children of part of their inheritance, particularly if property prices continue to rise.

One solution is a system of “temporal” ownership. This involves selling the property not outright but for only a specified period of time, after which it passes back to the original owner, or to their family if they have died. So the asset stays in the family, but the lump sum of the sale price funds a move to a smaller property (or covers nursing-home fees). For the buyer it’s like agreeing to pay a fixed rent for, say, a decade, which can be appealing in a rising market. Temporal ownership might also go some way to changing the need many people feel to remain homeowners for life.

There is a financial attachment to the family home, in that it is your asset, and what you leave to your kids is a crucial part of Irish life and culture

Given that the home is the main asset in Ireland, it is the thing that people “do most to protect”, says Lorcan Sirr of Dublin Institute of Technology. “Whatever about the emotional attachment of it being the family home, and where you raised your kids, there is a financial attachment, in that it is your asset, and what you leave to your kids is a crucial part of Irish life and culture,” he says.

“If there is a perception that, if you are going to be moving from a five-bedroom house in Rathmines to a two-bedroom apartment in Templeogue, you are going to be financially worse off, it is another obstacle in shifting that mindset.”

A temporal-ownership system provides the buyer with secure housing for a guaranteed period more cheaply than a mortgage would, while the original owner retains ultimate control over the future value of the property.

“There’s a sweet spot of about seven to 14 years’ [temporal ownership], after which it’s more prudent to get a mortgage,” says Sirr, who was a professor of housing in Spain when Catalonia introduced the scheme, in 2015.

Spain, like Ireland, has high vacant-housing rates and affordability issues for people on low and middle incomes, and the scheme was seen as a solution to housing issues there. Temporal ownership could also ease State funding pressures from the Fair Deal scheme. That system discourages older people from letting their homes if they need to move into a nursing home, as they must hand over 80 per cent of any rental income in return for their care.

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