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Australia’s current housing options are not future-proofed for its ageing population. shutterstock

How can we best design housing for Australia’s ageing population?

Few older Australians actually live in non-private housing such as nursing homes. Data from the 2011 Census reveals that 94% of Australians who are 65 or older still live in private housing. More than half live with a partner and another quarter live alone.

Life expectancy is nearly double what it was a century ago. And since the 1950s, a new group of young-old has evolved. These people are fit and healthy, and have little need for specialised housing.

This does not mean, however, that Australia’s current housing options are future-proofed for its ageing population. Architects, developers and clients should be designing new homes that have the agility to adapt to suit the changing needs of occupants. With the number of people aged 65 and above expected to more than double by 2055, homes being built now for young families may eventually be accommodating empty-nester couples or singles.

Why the need for change?

Building agility into a house design is not difficult. Zoned houses or houses that can be easily subdivided should be encouraged within planning frameworks along with designs that allow easy retrofitting with technology, devices or design strategies to support ageing in one place.

With housing affordability at crisis level, agile housing designs would enable more efficient use of housing stock as children leave home and occupants find they have rooms to spare. Houses designed to be easily subdivided into two dwellings would benefit older people by providing an income stream or space for a carer.

Alternatively, retirees may downsize as they become empty nesters. But this isn’t happening enough.

A significant majority of Australians live in detached suburban houses of three or more bedrooms. More than half of the detached houses in the inner and middle suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne are occupied by people aged 50 and above.

A recent review into downsizing outlined the complex reasons behind housing choices.

Even though family houses are not necessarily well suited to retirees, are retirement villages releasing family homes back to rental or buyers’ markets? Not many. Currently, only around 200,000 of the 3.3 million Australians aged 65 and above live in retirement villages.

Some are located in sea-change locations and others are in suburban locations where land is more affordable. Only now are higher-density, high-rise retirement villages in central city locations springing up.

What are the options?

Canada’s laneway housing is an interesting precedent that Australia might consider to increase housing options and densification close to services. The NSW model of granny flats is one that all states could adopt.

Australian examples of co-housing are beginning to appear based on the European model of shared ownership and equity. Co-housing is collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their neighbourhoods in an attempt to balance privacy with community.

Well-located, well-designed apartments close to community facilities are another option for Australia’s ageing population. Apartment choices should ideally be available across suburbs to enable people to stay within the community they know if they wish. These may become the Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORC) of tomorrow.

NORCs are well recognised in the US but less so in Australia. There are early examples in Australia, where concentrations of aged people living in a community are linked to a virtual network of support, based on a membership fee.

Spaces should be accessible and adaptable. Housing requires changes as physical functioning declines with age.

However, design is not necessarily just about wheelchair accessibility but also how the community and houses can work for the frail elderly, particularly in terms of mobility and safety. This needs some forethought when designing houses to ensure bathrooms, entries and kitchens are suitable for retrofitting.

Accessibility also needs to be considered when designing public buildings and spaces. Unfortunately, the Australian Standard on Design for Access is based on empirical data for 18-to-60-year-olds. It is not necessarily suitable for the very old and frail.

Both public and private spaces should cater for the rich diversity within Australia’s ageing population. A useful concept developed in Canada is the 8 80 Cities. If a city is designed to suit the needs of eight- and 80-year-olds then it will suit all people.

As mobility reduces, proximity becomes more important. Services and civic infrastructure are becoming increasingly centralised. The corner shop, the local council and other services are being grouped into larger entities. Housing suitable for the aged should be focused near these centres, and mobility to and from them should be considered as this is important for those who can no longer drive.

Access to parks and recreation facilities within distances that the frail elderly can manage is also ideal – with seating en route and well-lit paths, which are safe from cars and safe for mobility scooters and walkers.

With a booming life expectancy, there is a need for collective, intergenerational discussion and ideas about how to better design housing in Australia’s communities and cities.

This is part of a series of articles on ageing. Read the others here.

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