In the song by the Beatles, the worry was about being fed and needed at 64. Things have changed. If the Beatles wrote those lyrics today, the worry instead might be about housing.
Australia’s aging population is an inevitability. As our replacement rate falls (we’re having fewer children per family) and life expectancy extends, the proportion of over 65s will double in 40 years. In raw numbers, there were 2.5 million over 65s in 2002, and this will rise by 6.2 million in 2042. That’s an extra 4 million in this demographic. Have we given enough thought to where they’re going to live, and what styles of housing they might prefer?
There have been a number of developers who have understood the looming significance of Australia’s aging population, and who have sought to supply the ‘retirement living’ market with product that suits. At one end have been the glitzy apartment style residences in inner city locations, while at the other have been the aged care ‘homes’ provided for those in need of access to nursing care or medical assistance, or at least the reassurance of it being present.
Running parallel with the provision of retirement living or seniors living projects has been an assumption that, once ready to abandon the family home of many years, seniors will be happy to move across town and relocate to the facilities that are available. Perhaps this is hangover from the days when retirement or aged care living was provided on Stalinist lines: our oldies were forcibly shuffled off to some retirement centre well away from the rest of the community they grew up in. A sort of gulag for grumpies?
But what if seniors simply want a change of housing style within their community? What if they don’t want to move across town to the only available accommodation because they would prefer to continue to live in the neighbourhood and community they have spent a large part of their lives living in? They may want to continue to shop with ‘their’ local butcher, visit their local supermarket, newsagent, bank branch (if it still exists) and generally remain connected to the people and places that they’re familiar with – including (quite possibly) members of their family, children and grandchildren.
Meeting that need in the future is going to be close to impossible unless planning schemes (old fashioned zoning laws) adopt a more flexible approach. Flexibility will be needed because most of the existing suburbs of our major population centres are largely built out and will require retrofits and redevelopment of existing stock to accommodate senior’s housing preferences. Generally, the only tracts of undeveloped land capable of meeting seniors housing needs tend to be on the outskirts and while there’s nothing wrong with fringe development, it seems unfair to expect seniors to relocate across town to regions they’re unfamiliar with and to alienate themselves from their community simply because supply side mechanisms (controlled by planning schemes) don’t permit choice.
Further, the built out status of our ‘established’ suburbs – as they now stand – is something that much planning law seems to want to preserve for time immemorial. It’s a little bit like imagining that someone has declared the existing housing mix and styles a fixture of permanency: let’s put a giant glass dome over it all and call the city a museum – because we don’t (it seems) want anything to change.
But if we are to allow Australia’s seniors to ‘age in place’ and to ensure our markets provide choice, it’s going to mean some things will need to change, given the likely levels of future demand. The fastest growth of aging populations will be around our ‘middle ring’ suburbs and given the overwhelming preference to ‘age in place’, it is these suburbs that are going to have to change if those needs are to be met.
What will that change look like? The psychology of seniors in years to come – even today – is going to be different to those of previous generations. They’ll likely be more active rather than sedentary. The family home that’s served them to this point may now be simply too big for their needs, or contain too many stairs (the artificial hip or knee doesn’t like too many stairs). Their future housing needs will vary widely - some will be happy with apartments in high to medium density developments (elevators to their level of living means no stairs) while others (generally the majority) will prefer smaller, detached or semi-detached, single level dwellings. Many may want a small yard or garden (or at least a large balcony or terrace if in a unit), and perhaps want to keep a small pet dog or cat. They may want a spare bedroom for visitors or for babysitting grandchildren. They will probably prefer to be close to shops and near to public transport. And the majority will want to find something of that nature generally within the same community they’ve been living in. It is unlikely they’ll be searching for the ‘retirement home’ style of assisted care living until they’re well into their later years when their choices will be more limited.
Their problem will be that developers will struggle under current planning schemes to get approval for semi-detached housing designed with seniors in mind, if it means amalgamating some detached residential dwellings near local shops, because that land use is highly protected. They will struggle to gain approval to convert a large single site into medium or high rise in areas near local shops or transport, because the community will likely object – particularly if it’s in a neighbourhood where low density prevails (typical of most of suburban Brisbane). Advocates of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) style development might now be shouting at this article that ‘TODs are the answer.’ That might be so, if only one single TOD had been delivered during the past 15 years we’ve been talking about them.
Plus, the majority of proposed ‘TOD’ style development areas largely surround inner city transport nodes. Not much use if you’re in Aspley and want to stay there. And of course there’s the reality that multi level apartments are much more costly to develop and construct than the cottage building industry’s approach to single level, small detached housing.
The changes needed need not be dramatic, and subtle changes to land use surrounding existing retail or service centres in middle ring suburbs ought to be able to be achieved with minimal planning fuss. It is still possible to imagine something being done with minimal planning fuss, but very difficult to point to any actual examples. Still, hope springs eternal.
The changes could allow (for example) for some amalgamations of larger lot, detached post war homes into higher density cottage-style dwellings on a group title, still single level and with low construction costs. A 2000 square metre amalgamation could in theory provide 10 such cottages, with private garden space and minimal likelihood of community objection. The key would be to keep regulatory costs down, so punitive development levies would be out of order. After all, the infrastructure already exists and seniors tend to be much less demanding on utilities or services than young households. (Have a think about how little garbage they generate, or how little water they use as an illustration. It would surely be unfair to tax seniors in this type of housing for infrastructure upgrades under the circumstances?).
The traditional ‘retirement home’ or ‘aged care’ model of seniors housing is still going to be needed, especially as people require more frequent or acute care in their later years, and become less and less independent. But there will be a good 10 to 15 year period for people for whom the family home no longer suits, and who aren’t yet ready for ‘God’s waiting room.’ How we accommodate this coming bubble of seniors who want to age in place and continue to live independently, and how planning schemes will allow markets to provide choice and diversity, is something that perhaps should be a policy focus now.
Ross Elliott has more than 20 years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog The Pulse.
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