Growing old in the community should be the goal of housing

Opinion piece published in the Irish Independent 26/04/2016

‘None of us hopes to end our days in a nursing home. Circumstances may dictate that it is the best choice but it is nobody’s first choice.

We are living longer, but we have yet to face up to the new reality that this brings.

We rightly notice and bemoan levels of child poverty that make us truly ashamed of how we treat the most vulnerable in our society. But we have failed, in many ways, to include our older selves in this equation, and to face up to the responsibility we have to our older relatives and neighbours, both as a State and as a society.

The consultative paper from the Law Reform Commission on succession rights has brought this issue into sharp focus. It asks the question: do we need to take account of changing family relationships?

The answer is a clear ‘yes’, but we need to do this honestly, and be prepared for deeper soul searching than we normally do in public policy debates.

Instead of focusing our ire on central government and demanding a solution from the ‘powers that be’, we must examine our individual and collective responsibility to each other.

The solution lies with both ‘them’ and ‘us’.

An old ‘generational contract’ existed within families, but the families themselves are breaking down, living farther apart and becoming more detached.

The Law Reform Commission paper points to this new reality, where older people will have more responsibility for caring for themselves than in the past.

We can no longer rely on the idea that our children will be in a position to care for us when we most need it. In many cases, it is not an absence of will on behalf of the children – instead, it can be an absence of means.

Nursing Homes Ireland says that 22pc of all people aged 85 and older require continuous care in nursing homes, and forecast that this number will rise by 46pc in 2021.

Dementia is on the rise. Dr Suzanne Cahill of Trinity College Dublin estimates the incidence in our population is expected to double every 20 years.

Loneliness is a silent killer, and social isolation can increase the early onset of dementia. A 2010 review of more than 140 studies found that loneliness carries equivalent mortality risks to smoking and obesity.

If we are not careful, we could blindly walk ourselves into a dystopian future where older people without means are cast aside by families no longer duty-bound to care, and where children who are no longer assured of inheritance simply disengage, and where the financial outlay of ageing becomes a truly distressing prospect.

We need to change the mind-set. Our parents do not owe their children a family home or a living. ‘Extended adolescence’ sees children being far more dependent for much longer. We need to lose a sense of entitlement from our parents to either property or wealth, and understand our responsibility to our parents as they get older.

None of us hopes to end our days in a nursing home. Circumstances may dictate that it is the best choice but it is nobody’s first choice. Let us be honest about this.

Each of us, at all stages of our lives, know that we are happier, healthier and more productive when we know that we are truly part of a family or community.

But communities don’t just happen where people find themselves residing – ask anyone who lives in large apartment blocks, where they couldn’t pick their nearest neighbour out of a line-up. And care for the elderly, and indeed for children, the disabled and anyone with special needs, doesn’t necessarily just happen either, however much we think it should.

Public services don’t just appear when the need arises. In fact, as many in rural Ireland can attest, they can disappear just when they are most needed.

Public transport, public spaces, public schools, community centres and health centres all need to be planned.

And planning for communities is precisely what seems to bedevil this country. Rarely do we look ahead long down the road. As we can see with the current housing crisis, the market doesn’t necessarily respond to people’s needs. In many cases, even if the market could respond, the cost is simply too high. The same can be said with our nascent ageing population crisis.

The real, long-term, sustainable goal is lifecycle living, or building houses and communities that work from the cradle to the grave. Happier, healthier older people will be ones who can stay and be cared for in the community as long as possible.

We will fix our housing crisis with proper planning of lifetime housing and mixed-tenure estates where people live close to where they work and play. Vibrant communities are the ones where families with young children live side-by-side with older people and people with disabilities – where the renewal of the community is the natural cycle of life and death.

The ‘powers that be’ need to plan for lifetime housing and to resource community development; we need an administration not looking for quick wins but for sustainable ones.

And we need to look deep into our own hearts and discard the old model of inheritance.

Ned Brennan is chief executive of Respond Housing Association