Saturday 1 October 2016

Paul Melia: Amid all the chaos, planning for ageing is forgotten

Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30

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Stock photo

In a housing crisis, it's no surprise that sectoral interests fall by the wayside.

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For a Government facing a national emergency on homelessness, coupled with a need to boost housing supply to cater for renters, those on council waiting lists and private homeowners, it was inevitable that housing for the elderly fell down the list of priorities.

And while the ESRI suggests giving cash to these empty nesters to encourage them to move into smaller homes, it's worth bearing in mind that the think-tank estimates this would release just 26,000 homes - this is little over a year's supply.

Of far bigger concern, and something which all policy makers need to start tackling, is how we deal with our ageing population.

In 2011, there were 532,000 people aged 65 and older. According to the Central Statistics Office, that's set to rise to more than 850,000 by 2026 and close to 1.4 million by 2046.

But there has been little or no response from the Government.

The Department of the Environment says there are no national planning guidelines informing local authorities of the need to plan for the future, with criticism that policy documents on ageing have effectively been left to gather dust and languish on shelves. It's only when a respected institution like the ESRI starts suggesting policy options, which to some seem unpalatable, does the issue focus minds.

Ireland lags well behind our nearest neighbours when it comes to tackling this demographic timebomb. While the Housing Agency has commissioned research on housing for the elderly, which is expected to be completed in May, chief executive of the Respond Housing Association, Ned Brennan, says we are playing catch-up.

Other countries, most notably Holland and Denmark, factor an ageing population into its planning policies.

"We're very much on the back foot compared with other countries because of our whole dysfunctional housing economy," he said.

"The best practice is the life cycle approach, where you build a variety of housing types - larger homes for families, who can move to smaller homes in the same area.

"The idea of someone living their entire life in a community, to be encouraged to sell up and move to an area where they haven't lived, doesn't work. Older people need the support of their friends and community."

Respond manages 4,200 homes across the State, of which 800 are specifically for older people. The units tend to be provided in mixed-tenure developments, meaning older people live beside families. In many cases, open space such as gardens are provided, and there are supports including home care packages and classes ranging from physical activities to nutritional programmes. Healthcare is readily available, but not always on site.

"No matter how many people you interview, they don't say they want to go into a nursing home," Mr Brennan added.

"They want to live in their own home and avail of home care packages if needed. It could be someone coming into the house in the morning and giving a hand showering or getting ready, or providing meals."

In the UK, housing policies set out the need to provide lifetime neighbourhoods, with development of services such as a handymen for small domestic jobs, and practical services including gardening. It also talks about how good housing for older people can reduce pressure on working families and health services. Attractive choices which allow people move to smaller, more suitable homes can free up family homes.

The ESRI suggestion has at least helped start a debate. Now, we need action and policies.

Irish Independent

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