Friday, 26 August 2016

Changes in older Australian women’s housing

Julie Byles, Cassie Curryer, Kha Vo, Peta Forder, Deborah Loxton and Deirdre McLaughlin

When it comes to housing, Australia’s aging population faces a clash between cultural values and social expectations. While most older people own their own home (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011), there is a tension between social and environmental factors that push for moving from the family home into retirement villages and aged care facilities, and more personal factors that pull towards remaining in their existing homes. 

For the most part Australians place cultural value on ageing independently within our own homes, and most older people understandably don’t want to move from their homes and familiar neighbourhoods. These values are supported in Australia with a policy emphasis on ageing-in-place, and by providing care in people’s own homes rather than in institutional settings. At the same time, there is a strong social expectation that people will ‘downsize’ into smaller homes and apartments, or move into retirement communities that are designed to meet social and health care needs of older people. This expectation stems from assumptions that older people require less space, or need different types of housing to support their physical needs. The current lack of affordable inner city housing in Australia’s capitals also creates additional pressure to free up valuable housing space. Given this tension, older people find decisions about housing complex and of paramount concern. Moreover, their decisions are not entirely governed by their own preferences but are also influenced by housing markets and social expectations. Moving house is also a major life event, and must be considered within the context of an older persons’ overall life course.

Our research builds on previous studies which assessed the physical capacities of older people within their homes, and interviewed them about their intentions to modify their homes or to move. In our earlier research, many people were satisfied with their homes and had no plans to move, however their homes lacked design features to support an older person with greater levels of physical disability. This new study takes a longitudinal approach that provides a housing history within the context of women’s later lives. We followed a group of 9575 women from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health as they aged from 73-78 to 85-90 years, analysing housing, sociodemographic and health data. The women’s data were also linked to the Australian National Death Index, and Residential Aged Care (RAC) administrative records for the years 1999 through to 2011.   

The research revealed seven distinct housing patterns that can broadly be categorized as stable, downsize and transitional. 

Stable patterns:

  • House – living in a house for most surveys (47.0%)
  • House to the end – living in a house but with earlier death (13.7%)
  • Apartment – living in an apartment (12.8%)
  • Living in a retirement village (5.8%). 

Downsize pattern: moving from a house to retirement village (6.6%). 

Transition patterns: 

  • RAC Transition – from an apartment or retirement village, to RAC and death (7.8%), 
  • House to RAC – (6.4%).

Strikingly, only 13% of women downsized or were already living in a retirement village, highlighting a disparity between social expectations and the reality for older women. The vast majority of women remained in a house giving credence to policy objectives of ageing-in-place. It is also in keeping with our understanding of peoples’ attachment to place and the importance of the family home. Stability could also be considered reflective of women’s adaptability and as well as the ability to modify their environment to suit their changing needs. The person-environment fit also seemed to be important, with women in stable housing patterns tending to be healthier with less need for help with daily tasks. The two transitional patterns reflect the poorer physical health of women moving to RAC with grater need for supportive care.

The study demonstrates the strong potential for women to age in place, as well as the continuing need for residential aged care to support women with greater needs. However, the small proportion downsizing to apartments or retirement villages may also reflect a lack of availability of appropriate options for older people. 

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