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'There is nowhere for us to go' - Should older people be paid to downsize?

The big read: The Government wants to encourage older people to downsize from their homes by offering incentives. But is moving out viable when there are so few alternative options for the over-65s? Kim Bielenberg reports on our next big housing crisis


Healthy option: Tony and Ellen Gunning, who have downsized to a new home in Co Wicklow. Picture by Mark Condren

Healthy option: Tony and Ellen Gunning, who have downsized to a new home in Co Wicklow. Picture by Mark Condren

Huge benefits: Myles McWeeney and his wife Laurie Cearr only moved 800m to an apartment in Sandymount, Dublin. Photo by Mark Condren

Huge benefits: Myles McWeeney and his wife Laurie Cearr only moved 800m to an apartment in Sandymount, Dublin. Photo by Mark Condren

'We need a rethink': chairman of the Land Development Agency, John Moran

'We need a rethink': chairman of the Land Development Agency, John Moran


Healthy option: Tony and Ellen Gunning, who have downsized to a new home in Co Wicklow. Picture by Mark Condren

It is a dilemma facing tens of thousands of older people as they look to the future.

Do they stick to what they know best and stay in their current home close to their community, where they may have plenty of space - but face potential difficulties with mobility, maintenance and high heating costs.

Do they pursue another option, downsizing to smaller more manageable accommodation - or end up joining the growing number of people who move into a nursing home?

Right-sizing, formerly known as downsizing, is the current buzz term in government circles.


Huge benefits: Myles McWeeney and his wife Laurie Cearr only moved 800m to an apartment in Sandymount, Dublin. Photo by Mark Condren

Huge benefits: Myles McWeeney and his wife Laurie Cearr only moved 800m to an apartment in Sandymount, Dublin. Photo by Mark Condren

Huge benefits: Myles McWeeney and his wife Laurie Cearr only moved 800m to an apartment in Sandymount, Dublin. Photo by Mark Condren

It takes into account the fact that up to 17pc of older people now live alone in homes with seven rooms or more (according to the report 'Housing Choices for Older People').

Under the ideal scenario, a cohort of older people will trade-in their spacious, breezy three or four-bed homes with a garden for a cosy flat or bungalow in their neighbourhood - and receive a nest egg for their final years.

If all goes to plan, families struggling to get on the housing ladder will move in to these spacious homes with their kids - and, hey presto, a part of our housing crisis will be solved.

But downsizing is not always as simple as it sounds, and the idea of encouraging older people to move out of homes that they may have worked for all their lives is a highly emotive topic.

Politicians have to draw a fine line between offering constructive choices to older people - and treating them as the "bed blockers" in a dysfunctional housing system.

Given the choice, most older people in Ireland would actually prefer to stay in their own homes.


'We need a rethink': chairman of the Land Development Agency, John Moran

'We need a rethink': chairman of the Land Development Agency, John Moran

'We need a rethink': chairman of the Land Development Agency, John Moran

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The Housing for Older People survey found that 66pc of the over-65s want to stay in mainstream housing. Even if they are incapacitated, they would prefer to stay put if the house can be adapted to suit their needs. Up to 15pc would be prepared to downsize to homes in their own community, while a further 15pc would choose "age-friendly accommodation", while just 4pc want to go to nursing homes.

For Ellen Gunning and her husband Tony, health considerations came into play as they made plans for the future and downsized to a duplex property in Bray, Co Wicklow from a much older four-bed house in Dean's Grange in Dublin.

The couple, who are both in their sixties, decided to move after Tony suffered a heart condition and they wanted a home that was easier to look after.

Ellen, who is director of the Irish Academy of Public Relations, says: "We decided to move because we wanted to eliminate the maintenance that was required on our house - we had a garden with a lot of grass and 10ft-high bushes."

Ellen underlines a point that is often forgotten in the discussion about housing for older people.

The couple may be reaching conventional retirement age, but both plan to continue working well into the future and need sufficient space. As an artist, Tony has a studio at home, and Ellen has a home office in the three-bed duplex.

Ellen is delighted with her move to a smaller home, and in particular the fact that the duplex is much easier to heat, but she believes the Government will have to tread carefully when encouraging older people to downsize.

"If it is your own home that you are living in, you have to be able to live in it as long as you want. The messaging for older people has to be around how downsizing can improve your life, and not how it solves a problem for the Government."

Ellen says she wouldn't like the idea of anyone coming along and telling her that she doesn't need a certain amount of space.

"I don't think any incentives will work if it is just a matter of paying people to move out of their homes."

In its recent report, Housing Options for Ireland's Ageing Population, the Government promised to establish ways to incentivise older people in public and private housing to "right-size" to appropriately sized units if they choose to do so.

But the report does not specify what kind of incentives there would be. There have been suggestions that there could be exemptions from stamp duty or property tax concessions when downsizers move to their smaller home.

Housing Crisis 2.0

Jim Daly, Minister for Older People in the Department of Health, denies suggestions that the purpose of the Government's housing plan for older people is to move them out of bigger houses to free up space for younger families.

"Freeing up space for younger people was not even mentioned in the 18 months that I spent working on this," the minister told Review.

"The purpose of the report was to address the problem that there are not enough options for older people when it comes to housing.

"At the moment, it can be a case of a choice between staying at home or going to a nursing home."

The recent justifiable focus on the housing shortage and homelessness for young families has eclipsed the fact we could face another profound difficulty in the coming years - a shortage of suitable accommodation for older people. That could be Housing Crisis 2.0.

The rapid ageing of our population will be one of the most significant social developments of the next two decades.

The number of people over the age of 65 is expected to reach 1.4 million by 2040, or close to a quarter of the total population.

While most of the attention is now on housing younger families, the Government will have to pay more attention to where these older people live - including a growing number who will not own their own homes.

At the moment, up to 85pc of people over 65 own their own homes, but that number is likely to drop in the coming years as a growing number of renters reach retirement age. According to a housing report by the charity Alone, 10pc of Irish people aged 50 to 54 rent their homes from private landlords.

Research by Age Friendly Ireland highlights the fact that there is a limited number of housing options for older people. This can include smaller homes suitable for downsizing or sheltered housing schemes, where elderly people have their own home but access to some supports.

The research shows that this shortage of suitable housing can sometimes result in a person unnecessarily entering a nursing home, with its huge costs and potential reduction in quality of life.

Simon Brooke, policy officer with the housing association Clúid, says: "In Ireland there are a lot of people in nursing homes who shouldn't be there. You only really need to be there if you require 24-hour nursing care."

Downsizing may be an option that is heavily promoted as part of the solution to our housing crisis, but the opportunities for moving to a smaller home in many areas can be extremely limited, according to Brooke. "In some suburbs of Dublin, there are only three or four-bedroom houses. So even if you want to downsize to somewhere in your own community, there is nowhere available."

There is a similar shortage of suitable accommodation for downsizers in many areas outside the capital.

William Cuddy, who describes himself as an "empty nester", says he would love to downsize from his home in the village of Glounthaune near Cork city, but says there is no suitable property in his area.

"I have a four-bed home with a large garden and my three children have left home," says the 72-year-old accountant. "I have calculated that there are 110 empty nesters in this area like me. If we moved out of our houses we could free up housing for young people, but there is nowhere for us to go."

In order to tackle this problem, Cuddy and a group of other residents have clubbed together and are planning to build their own housing scheme for downsizers on a not-for-profit basis. Each keyholder would pay €300,000 for a lifetime interest in a home - and this amount can be returned to the family when they pass on.

"There is a lot of interest in this in the area, and we are trying to buy a suitable site," says Cuddy.

Would financial incentives even work in freeing up accommodation for younger families? A report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) showed that a high proportion of older people living alone occupy small houses with four rooms or less.

The report concluded that incentivising this group to move may have little impact on the availability of housing suitable for larger households.

While the director of the ESRI, Alan Barrett, has said that incentives could increase availability of housing, he also warned of the danger of loneliness among downsizers moving away from their community.

Commenting on the ESRI research, he says: "Any such policy should consider the potential for social isolation among older people who move to an unfamiliar area."

Simon Brooke of Clúid says: "The issue of loneliness is crucial when older people are relocating - and that is why it is important that they are close to local amenities."

Having lived in a generous space, some householders can also take time to adjust if they are downsizing to an apartment.

They may have to cope with noises and smells from neighbours, and after decades gathering possession, they are at a loss to know what to do with them in a smaller space.

One property analyst told Review: "You have to be careful when you move to an apartment scheme that you don't end up next to an apartment that is let to holidaymakers where young people have late-night parties.

"There is also a limited supply of apartments suitable for older people.

"Some schemes are now only available for let, because an entire block has been bought by an investment fund."

Downsizing has worked out well for the food writer and book critic Myles McWeeney, and his wife Laurie Cearr, who manages the Great Music in Irish Houses festival.

Myles (77) and Laurie (72) moved only 800m to a three-bed apartment after they sold their four-bed home in Sandymount in Dublin 4.

They decided to move after Laurie became ill and they found their home became less manageable.

"It was about future-proofing," says Myles. "My main priority when I moved was that I could still walk to buy a litre of milk at 10 o'clock at night, and that we would have easy access to public transport."

Having never lived in a flat before, Myles initially found it difficult to adjust to a smaller space, but he now finds that easier.

Limited choices

"The stressful period was at the start when we had to go all our possessions and decide what to get rid of. I had 140 boxes of stuff in the hall.

"The benefits are huge - our heating bills have plummeted and we don't have the cost of maintaining a garden," adds Myles.

While there may be financial incentives for downsizers in the near future, the Government may only succeed in boosting numbers significantly by helping to make more homes suitable for the elderly available.

Seán Moynihan, chief executive of Alone, says: "At present the choices for older people are hugely limited. It shouldn't just be a choice of staying in your home or going to a nursing home, as it is for many people.

"Nursing homes are hugely expensive. Most countries have Housing with Support as an alternative to a nursing home. The residents can move within their community and have support on-site, but still have their own front door."

Among those who are pushing for the encouragement of downsizing, or right-sizing, is the chairman of the Land Development Agency, John Moran. But the former secretary general of the Department of Finance does not believe that short-term financial tax incentives such as stamp duty exemptions would have a major impact.

"I think the best incentive is if you make the choice compelling and a move very attractive," he says.

"We need to provide alternative options - by providing accommodation in existing neighbourhoods, particularly close to amenities such as hospitals and public transport.

"We need to rethink how we plan housing - so that there are a number of different accommodation types in each area suiting each generation," Moran tells Review.

"If there were different housing types in a development, people could rent an apartment when they are young, go to a bigger apartment when they have a family, and then move to another apartment when they are over 55 - all in the same scheme."

Introducing measures such as this may be worthy, but they could take decades to implement.

In the meantime, ministers will have to be careful about urging people to quit their homes - without offering viable alternatives in the short to medium term.

As the Fianna Fáil housing spokesman Darragh O'Brien puts it: "It's a bit of an affront to be saying to them - you're rattling around in a four-bed house and there's only two of you. Would you ever get out and let a young family in there?"

Housing options

Downsizing in Situ

Remodelling a home to accommodate a tenant. The Government is supporting a small housing project, Ava, which helps older people to reconfigure their family-size homes to create a rental property on an upper floor. This enables the older person to stay in their home, and receive rent.


Residents live in their own apartments but have access to community life through communal areas and facilities. Run by members of the group, it is based on mutual support and self-governance. Designed to promote easy social interaction.

Supportive Housing

Designed for older people to live independently in self-contained units, with age-friendly design features to suit their needs and accessible support services.

Home sharing

An arrangement between an older householder with a room to spare and a younger person. The younger person provides low-level help to the householder in exchange for cheap accommodation.

Split housing

Homes specifically designed or adapted for different generations of the same family to live adjacently. Typically this includes an adaptation or extension that divides a house into two areas for independent living.

Boarding out

Older people live with a family which is matched to their needs. Under the existing 'Boarding Out' scheme in Ireland, the HSE subsidises the homeowner.

* Source: Housing Choices for Older People in Ireland


Older folk: the housing numbers



want to stay in mainstream home


are ready to downsize


want to move to age-friendly accommodation


want to go to a nursing home

At present:


of older people own their homes


live alone in a house with seven or more rooms


people live in nursing homes


struggle to keep their homes warm


have difficulty with maintenance

Our ageing population:

60 plus

2016... 866,317

2021... 1 million

2026... 1.15 million

2031... 1.3 million






Dublin Fingal


Who pays rent to a Private Landlord?

A growing number of renters are reaching retirement age


Age 50-54






Over 65

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