Housing for ageing New Zealanders

This Issue This is a part of the Neighbourhoods and ageing populations feature

By - , Build 106

The number of very old people in mainstream housing is rising rapidly, many with significant disabilities and many living alone. How can the housing market respond so housing is appropriate, safe and comfortable for these people?

An elderly woman in the kitchen of a 1950s house in Takapuna. (Photo from PhotoNewZealand/Adrian Jones.)
Figure 1: Percentage of different age groups who live in owned housing. (Source: 2001 and 2006 censuses.)

In the last 10 years, the number of people aged 65 and over grew by 21% to 526,700. This number is expected to rise to 1.33 million by 2051, 2.5 times the present total. Within 20 years, the 65+ age group will make up about 25% of the population, compared with 12% now, and it is the oldest age group that is growing the fastest. The number of people aged 85 years or more increased by 52% over the last decade and is expected to rise to 320,000 by 2051 – an increase of over 500%.

Big increase in small households

Most older New Zealanders live in small households, alone or with a spouse or partner only. A high proportion live in one-person households, and this increases with age, so one-third of men and two-thirds of women aged 85 years or over live alone. As the ageing trend advances, we are likely to see significant increases in one- and two-person households (expected to account for two-thirds of the total by 2021) and a continuing fall in average household size.

Three-quarters of people aged 65 years and over live in owner-occupied housing. Older people are much more likely to own their homes, and own without a mortgage, than the general population. This proportion has not fallen recently, despite decreases among younger people (see Figure 1). Only 15% of people aged 65+ rent their accommodation, and only about 5% are in residential care, although this proportion increases significantly from age 85.

Ageing in place

In New Zealand, a high proportion of people remain in their own homes until the end of their lives. Being able to ‘age in place’ (to make their own choices about where to live) allows older people to maintain their independence and social involvement as long as possible. Entry into residential care is taking place later in life and at higher levels of disability.

Measures to support ageing in place rank highly among critical policy issues in an ageing population. These include ensuring appropriate forms and quality of housing, whether for existing housing or specialised developments, and the availability of care and support services.

Figure 1: Percentage of different age groups who live in owned housing. (Source: 2001 and 2006 censuses.)

Modifying and maintaining homes

Older homeowners on low incomes often require assistance with maintaining, renovating and adapting their homes. This includes improving access and installing features that make it easier for them to manage with reduced mobility. However, such assistance is limited in New Zealand.

Releasing funds

Older homeowners have the ability to release funds tied up in housing, especially mortgage-free housing. They can trade down to more appropriate housing – a smaller house or apartment – but often there is still a financial gap, and it may be difficult to find a low maintenance home close to services and activities. Retirement villages provide an option for homeowners with significant assets, and the number of older people using this option is increasing.

Another option for releasing funds is through commercial equity release schemes. These have experienced regrowth in New Zealand recently. ‘Asset rich and income poor’ older people can use such schemes to release lump sums or regular income to improve their standard of living. There are several commercial providers, mainly offering the ‘reverse mortgage’ approach, and some local authorities allow homeowners to ‘roll-up’ rates payments. Local research on these schemes shows that released funds are being used primarily for house maintenance and renovations and to meet health and everyday living costs.

An elderly woman in the kitchen of a 1950s house in Takapuna. (Photo from PhotoNewZealand/Adrian Jones.)

Issues for older renters

Older renters may also require their houses to be adapted, renovated and maintained, but they have less autonomy, and there may be a trade-off between improvements and rent levels. If they do not want their rent to go up, they may have to accept lower housing standards.

If present patterns of housing tenure continue, there is likely to be a shortfall in public rental accommodation for older people. A significant portion has outdated amenities and is not well matched to current and future needs. Nearly half the public rental stock is three-bedroom houses, whereas the demand from older people is for smaller units.

Universal design for the future

A variety of responses are required to meet the housing needs of older people, both now and in the future. Housing to support ageing in place should incorporate appropriate access, such as ramps and wide doorways to facilitate movement by wheelchairs. Special design features, especially in bathrooms and kitchens, are required, including flat-floor showers, grab-rails, correctly located and appropriate handles and switches for people who may be suffering from arthritis.

Older people feel the cold, are often sedentary and remain at home a lot. They also have limited incomes, so energy efficiency is a priority. Many of these necessary features are part of ‘universal design’, a principle ensuring that housing is suitable for people of all ages and for people with disabilities. Universal design needs further promotion in New Zealand.

Intermediate housing needed

‘Sheltered’ or ‘intermediate’ housing has special design or location features for older people, linking housing with care and support services. For example, it needs to be close to shops, public transport and health services. Accommodation for carers is a necessity. Older people do not like ‘bed-sitters’. However, very little intermediate housing currently exists in New Zealand. Experience in Europe shows that even people with high levels of dependency can remain in housing specially equipped to help them maintain their independence and social contact.

The evidence suggests that a continuum of housing types and options for older people is needed. This will range from remaining in a long-term family home, supported accommodation and on through increasing levels of care to rest home and hospital levels.

Making homes safe

Safety in the home is significant to the design and location of housing for older people. It suggests the need for initiatives such as home safety audits and fall prevention programmes. Even changing a light bulb can be a risky activity for a frail 90-year-old, and loose floor coverings are a fall hazard.

Another key area is fire prevention. Figures from the New Zealand Fire Service Commission show that older people have a high risk of fire incidents resulting in death.

The phenomenon of population ageing is an impressive testimony to successful economic and social progress. Prolonging healthy and independent living and the potential for older people to have choices and to contribute to society is a significant and unprecedented achievement. The housing market must respond appropriately to ensure that housing for all ages is safe and comfortable.

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An elderly woman in the kitchen of a 1950s house in Takapuna. (Photo from PhotoNewZealand/Adrian Jones.)
Figure 1: Percentage of different age groups who live in owned housing. (Source: 2001 and 2006 censuses.)