Older Australians need more housing choices


“...cohousing needs to be a serious option in the housing mix and it needs to be supported by planning policy and business leadership.”

Well, the 7.30 Report program about cohousing in which we we featured the other week was a bit of a game changer!  The 7.30 Report had been wanting to do a story on the concept of cohousing for older people, partly as a kind of follow up to some stories the ABC had done in recent months about levels of dissatisfaction among residents of retirement villages and aged care facilities.  The 26 June 2017 Four Corners program, Bleed them Dry, with its examination of resident concerns about some village operators, the nature of the typical retirement village financial model, as well as purported treatment by operators (Aveo in particular), seemed to hit a growing sore spot for many people in – or approaching – retirement.

Then it got really interesting.  The responses to the program that went to air on 28 September, revealed a deep, abiding and frustrated appetite for more housing choices for older people.

More choices needed

With due respect to the retirement village industry, the reality is, if you are living in your family home and would like to ‘rightsize’ to a place that better suits your needs as you grow older, the options are pretty thin on the ground.  There are smaller houses and apartment buildings if you’re content to merely reduce your land/floor size.  But if you want your ‘last home’ to be supportive of your potentially changing needs as you get older (things like proximity to shops, services and public transport if you’re not able to drive; security and design features that can support health and mobility changes; location among people you know, within the community you love), then you will struggle.  And with all the costs (and taxes) involved in selling and relocating anywhere, it’s not surprising that many people think twice.

Housing choices older Aussies PC -Dec 2015
The retirement village is really the only housing alternative we have in this country that is ostensibly designed to meet the needs of people as they grow older.  Some people are very happy with the traditional retirement village model and lifestyle and that’s great.  But for plenty of others, this option falls somewhat short of the mark.

So why are there so few options? It’s not as if older Australians are signing up in droves to move to a retirement village.  According to the Retirement Living Council (the division of the Property Council of Australia that represents retirement village operators) across Australia, around 15 per cent of the population is aged 65 years or older, and around 5.7 per cent of this cohort lives in a retirement village.

And older Australians are in no hurry either: the average age of entry these days is ‘officially’ 75, according to the publicly available PWC/Property Council Retirement Census (or closer to 80 years if you go by industry chatter), and usually only due to increased health requirements or the death of a spouse.

Yet, the recent blip of publicity about cohousing for older people sent home to us the message that a great many people do think and worry about how and where they will grow old and what choices they have to optimise the positive experience and minimise the negatives.  A glance at our Facebook page or the 7.30 Report’s Facebook page on this topic reveals a certain amount of angst in the community about housing and lifestyle choices for growing old.  And that’s not even counting the people who have contacted us directly by email.

Screen Shot 7.30 Report FB

More to the point, it also reveals a substantial appetite for alternatives. Understandably, the cohousing option, as it is described in the two examples presented in the 7.30 Report story, isn’t for everyone.  [D’uh…  We are dealing with the glorious texture and diversity that is humankind and nothing can be assumed to suit all humans in any context or endeavour.]

But cohousing is a very broad approach to housing and by its very nature, it can come in any number of shapes, sizes and textures to suit a great many needs, interests and scenarios – from the size and structure of the membership, the financial model and the development model, to the location, design features and inclusions of the built form.

That’s something that Professor Chris Reidy from UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures found in his 12 month research project in which The AGEncy Project played a small part.  He identified three broad types of cohousing for older people – small scale cohousing (like ‘The Shedders’, featured in the 7.30 Report story alongside us); cooperative rental housing; and deliberative development (the model we are adopting).

Getting the housing product you want and need
The point is, when you get together to design an environment for your particular group, whatever size and make-up that is, you are creating a unique living environment and a legal and financial framework of your own choosing.

If you buy into a regular apartment building or a retirement village, you are buying a product that has been designed by a developer or a business with the primary intention of making a determined profit margin. That’s perfectly fine, certainly not a criminal act, just business.  However, it does mean that all the choices explored and decisions made have to be in line with the profit imperative for the developer… And it necessarily means limited options and limited flexibility.

urban arts communeOne of the big reasons why people love the cohousing idea is the range of choice that is unleashed when most of the typical developer margin is avoided and future residents are involved in the design and development decisions.  It is the future residents who collaborate to choose the inclusions and exclusions they want, with whatever price tag that incurs or saves them.  On the leisure side, if they are enthusiastic gardeners, tech-heads, cooks, artists, cyclists or cinephiles; if they’re knitters, accountants, woodworkers or web designers; if they are car enthusiasts, hikers, writers or yogis; or any mix of people and interests, it is up to them to decide what features and facilities they want and how much they are prepared to pay.

If they want security and support features, again, they can choose what and how much.  In a consumer directed care setting, there are clear economies of scale should they choose to enter into a care and support agreement with a care provider.  And some care providers might even be cohousing ‘developers’.

The big difference is choice and cost.  The choices can be nuanced, even unique, depending on what the group wants to agree to.  The cost can be minimised because there is minimal or no added margin.

We are certainly not arrogant enough to believe that cohousing is the universal panacea for the housing and lifestyle woes of older Australians, but it does certainly enable greater choice; and we believe it needs to be part of the range of options available.

If we want to retain agency as we grow older; if we don’t want to stop contributing, to fade out of life, lose control over our choices and decisions, lose relevance to our community; then cohousing needs to be a serious option in the housing mix and it needs to be supported by planning policy and business leadership.