In the song by the Beatles, the worry was about being fed and needed at 64. Things have changed. If the Beatles wrote those lyrics today, the worry instead might be about housing.
Australia’s ageing population is inevitable. As our replacement rate falls - we’re having fewer children per family - and life expectancy extends, the proportion of over 65’s will double in 40 years. In raw numbers, there were 2.5 million over 65’s in 2002, and this will rise by 6.2 million in 2042. That’s an extra four million in this demographic. Have we given enough thought to where they’re going to live, and what styles of housing they might prefer?
There have been a number of developers who have understood the looming significance of Australia’s ageing population, and who have sought to supply the ‘retirement living’ market with product that suits. At one end have been the glitzy apartment style residences in inner city locations, while at the other have been the aged care ‘homes’ provided for those in need of access to nursing care or medical assistance, or at least the reassurance of it being present.
Running parallel with the provision of retirement living or seniors living projects has been an assumption that, once ready to abandon the family home of many years, seniors will be happy to move across town and relocate to the facilities that are available. Perhaps this is hangover from the days when retirement or aged care living was provided on Stalinist lines: our oldies were forcibly shuffled off to some retirement centre well away from the rest of the community they grew up in. A sort of gulag for grumpies?
But what if seniors simply want a change of housing style within their community? What if they don’t want to move across town to the only available accommodation because they would prefer to continue to live in the neighborhood and community they have spent a large part of their lives living in?
They may want to continue to shop with ‘their’ local butcher, visit their local supermarket, newsagent, bank branch (if it still exists) and generally remain connected to the people and places that they’re familiar with – including (quite possibly) members of their family, children and grandchildren.
Meeting that need in the future is going to be close to impossible unless planning schemes (old fashioned zoning laws) adopt a more flexible approach. Flexibility will be needed because most of the existing suburbs of our major population centres are largely built out and will require retrofits and redevelopment of existing stock to accommodate senior’s housing preferences.
Generally, the only tracts of undeveloped land capable of meeting seniors housing needs tend to be on the outskirts. While there’s nothing wrong with fringe development, it seems unfair to expect seniors to relocate across town to regions they’re unfamiliar with and to alienate themselves from their community simply because supply side mechanisms (controlled by planning schemes) don’t permit choice.
Further, the built out status of our ‘established’ suburbs – as they now stand – is something that much planning law seems to want to preserve for time immemorial. It’s a little bit like imagining that someone has declared the existing housing mix and styles a fixture of permanency: let’s put a giant glass dome over it all and call the city a museum – because we don’t (it seems) want anything to change.
But if we are to allow Australia’s seniors to ‘age in place’ and to ensure our markets provide choice, it’s going to mean some things will need to change, given the likely levels of future demand. The fastest growth of aging populations will be around our ‘middle ring’ suburbs and given the overwhelming preference to ‘age in place’, it is these suburbs that are going to have to change if those needs are to be met.
What will that change look like? The psychology of seniors in years to come – even today – is going to be different to those of previous generations. They’ll likely be more active rather than sedentary. The family home that’s served them to this point may now be simply too big for their needs, or contain too many stairs (the artificial hip or knee doesn’t like too many stairs). Their future housing needs will vary widely - some will be happy with apartments in high to medium density developments (elevators to their level of living means no stairs) while others (generally the majority) will prefer smaller, detached or semi-detached, single level dwellings.
Many may want a small yard or garden (or at least a large balcony or terrace if in a unit), and perhaps want to keep a small pet dog or cat. They may want a spare bedroom for visitors or for babysitting grandchildren. They will probably prefer to be close to shops and near to public transport. And the majority will want to find something of that nature generally within the same community they’ve been living in. It is unlikely they’ll be searching for the ‘retirement home’ style of assisted care living until they’re well into their later years when their choices will be more limited.
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