A fresh approach to ageing Ireland and life beyond retirement

Twilight years can be enhanced by focusing on the physical environment, say experts

According to Age Action Ireland, 10.4% of over 55s were unable to keep their home adequately warm. File photograph: Getty

According to Age Action Ireland, 10.4% of over 55s were unable to keep their home adequately warm. File photograph: Getty

 

In Ireland it is all too often the case that as people get older the environment they live in gradually decays.

According to Age Action Ireland, 10.4 per cent of over 55s were unable to keep their home adequately warm; and a quarter had difficulty maintaining their homes.

While grants are on offer, the sum is often insufficient to meet the scale of investment needed in a home.

Meanwhile, due to their age, those who want to downsize their homes are often denied the financial products, like bridging loans, needed to effect a sale.

Eventually some people move to a care home, often on the edge of towns, remote from their communities.

Experts argue that life beyond retirement can be enhanced by focusing on the physical environment for ageing; looking at where and how people live and how it can deliver better physical, emotional and psychological outcomes for people living active and participative lives into their 70s, 80s and beyond.

Mick Forde Bradley, originally from Cork, has worked with Copenhagen-based architectural firm Zeso for almost a decade. He has been a partner since 2011 and has worked on projects focused on improving the built environment for people from the age of 50 onwards.

The idea, he says, is to build in flexibility and utility that enables and encourages healthy ageing. He argues that a profound change in mindset is needed to encourage older people to participate fully in society. “It’s looking more holistically at how you live your life from 50-100,” he says.

“I don’t accept the idea that life ends when you retire. The current generation won’t even retire in the same ways we retire.There’s going to be a group that is healthier, will live longer, and be conscious of what kind of a life they want to live,” he says, arguing that retirees should be encouraged to work with younger people who have high levels of technical skills but limited experience in the workplace. “It’s about having a much more optimistic vision of what can be achieved later in life. And that can be achieved by not shuffling people off when they hit 70,” he adds.

Part of this would be driven by co-locating homes with facilities in town centres, alongside other age groups, according to Louise Dedenroth Høj, who also works with Zeso and is completing a PhD in the relationship between dementia and architecture. “[Should] you send someone to a faraway care facility, or should you have facilities where a spouse can stay in an apartment and the other person can move next door to a dementia facility?” she asks.

Her research shows that if one lives to more than 80, the possibility of getting dementia increases. Those suffering from dementia can benefit from staying in familiar surroundings, she says. “What is most present in the minds of people with dementia is their early years, their younger lives, when they created their own identity . . . if there’s something you recognise, it can help you create happy memories from earlier in your life.”

Forde Bradley believes that far from thinking about managing dementia, the focus should be on putting people in real communities, with the facilities they need to stay healthy and active in society.

He cites the example of apartment blocks designed for downsizers in city centres: “These are apartments where everyone from the age of 55-plus are selling their four-bedroom [homes] in suburbia and coming into the city centre and renting apartments located beside an elderly care home, a hospice, a doctor’s clinic and student housing. So it’s not just old people, it’s a living collective.”

It is Government policy – as articulated by the National Positive Ageing Strategy and Rebuilding Ireland – to keep people in their homes and in their communities for as long as possible.

However, according to Age Action Ireland, the range of housing options and support services to achieve this isn’t available. “There is simply a lack of suitable housing on the market which can serve as a well-situated home and can adapt as a person ages,” the group wrote in a policy document earlier this year.

Age Action Ireland has called for new universal design principles to be made mandatory for all new builds, with incentives offered for “suitable mixed housing and nursing homes near central locations”.

The State must also introduce new measures to protect older people from homelessness, the organisation has argued. While a large majority of older people in Ireland – some 81 per cent – own their homes without a mortgage or other loan secured on it, as home ownership trends change increasing numbers will enter retirement as renters.

Most of all a policy for where people get older, and how it can positively affect that process, should involve older people themselves. “Any policy should be informed by the needs and voice of the people it seeks to serve,” according to Age Action Ireland’s policy document on ageing in place. “Real consultation with older people is needed to accurately capture their varied needs and wishes.”