Where the heart is

As part of the consultation on a new strategy for an ageing population, we've invited a range of experts and specialists to write on topics of their choice.  In the following article Dr Kay Saville-Smith and Dr Bev James write about the challenges of housing and an ageing population.

Our homes are where we love and live, and they help us to feel safe and secure.

Good housing is critical as we age and become more vulnerable, so older people’s homes have some important functions. They should:

  • protect us from the elements and natural disasters.

Our home should keep us warm in winter and cool in summer, help us feel safe during and after events like floods, earthquakes or storms, and be repairable quickly and affordably.

  • help us to live decently on limited incomes.

Although many older Kiwis are still in paid work, our earning power declines with age. New Zealand’s superannuation assumes older people own their own homes, so their housing costs will be lower than others’. Therefore, home-owning retirees have better living standards than those paying rent or still paying mortgages.

The costs of running a home are less when the house is small, well-designed, needs little heating or cooling to be comfortable and healthy, uses solar energy for water heating and is water efficient.

  • be a place and base for us to enjoy life and stay connected.

Homes are places for intimacy, hobbies, welcoming visitors and providing hospitality, caring for others and receiving care, and enjoying ‘time-out’. From our homes we visit our communities to work, play, socialise, shop, exercise, be entertained, and access health, banking, legal and other services.

Three factors affect how well our houses support our lives:

  1. their ability to cater to and adapt to our changing needs
  2. their nearness to people, places and services that are important to us, and
  3. their connectedness to transport, communications and information technologies.

These are the critical housing challenges New Zealand faces as more of us enter into the later stages of our lives:

Figure 1New Zealand’s tenure revolution

New Zealand’s future older people will mostly live in rentals if policy doesn’t change substantially. The proportions of older owner-occupiers fell rapidly in 15 years, and will fall further given the reduced rates of home ownership now found among people in their early forties. See Figure 1.

In the social housing sector only council housing is targeted to older people. Most older tenants live in the private rental sector and typically find it less satisfying. Rental housing is older and thermal performance requirements are low, tenure can be insecure, and older renters often rely on the Accommodation Supplement, which is never enough – and demand is increasing.

Getting the right fit and performance

Most older people want to stay in their homes. Although a slight majority of older people have a period of care before they die, most older people live most of their late years in their homes. They also spend more time in their homes, especially if they are not in paid work, so their homes need to be functional and affordable to run.

While many older people could partition their existing homes or use their sections to accommodate an additional unit, council planning rules in New Zealand are fragmented and inconsistent. This makes these options difficult, even though they offer both rental, care and income generating opportunities for older people.

New builds are usually larger than older people need, can afford or want. In Figure 2 we see that in most regions the number of new one to two bedroom houses added between 2001 and 2013 doesn’t coincide well with the older age ratio (proportion of older population to the working age population). For example, Marlborough has a very high ratio of older people, but only about 7% of new builds were smaller homes.

Figure 2

Meanwhile some older people have also been burdened by poorly built homes and poor remediation of problems, such as leaky homes.

The Building Code sets out requirements for our homes’ durability, weather tightness, thermal performance and fire risk. However, it doesn’t require our homes to be functional for people across their lives including when frail or with limited mobility, or when we have balance, hearing or sight problems.

Age-friendly transport and street

Only five precent of Aucklanders have adequate access to public transport. Only 26.5 percent have access to both trains and buses and two or more transit trips per hour.

The car remains ‘king’ in New Zealand, and when we can afford to buy fuel and maintain them, cars can give freedom unmatched by other transport modes – that is, when there’s no gridlock. But within 25 years we’ll have over 300,000 older people without a driver licence, and many Kiwi towns and suburbs have very little public transport.

A driver must not drive a mobility device on any portion of a roadway if it is practicable to drive on a footpath. (Land Transport rule)

Meanwhile our footpaths are becoming more crowded with vehicles. Mobility scooters are getting faster and heavier, and more popular. Riders are often forced into using roads illegally or endangering pedestrians, including older ones, by using footpaths.

Older pedestrians are sharing footpaths with more than just mobility scooters. For example, New Zealand Post has recently been allowed to use Paxters (four-wheel drive vehicles with maximum speeds up to 45 kilometres per hour) to replace by-foot and by-bicycle postal delivery.

As shown in Figure 3, older and younger people have the most pedestrian deaths and injuries, so they need safe streets and safe footpaths.

Figure 3

Positive ageing or business as usual?

Older New Zealanders are now more active, healthier and living longer. But positive ageing needs action. In the future, older people will have different life paths from those today, even the ‘young’ old, who benefited from a long period of widespread home ownership. Rental housing used to serve a relatively small proportion of people. Increasingly we will live in rentals from childhood to old age, and older people will more often rent.

‘Business as usual’ means:

  • ignoring the long-term affordability of renting, tenure security and healthy, well-designed rentals
  • building homes that aren’t adaptable to people’s changing needs
  • not adapting to climate change
  • eroding footpath safety, and
  • not improving public transport.

'Positive ageing’ means something different if older people can live well and continue being valued participants in our communities.

Dr Kay Saville-Smith is a sociologist with more than 20 years’ experience in community and social policy research. She is Research Director at the Centre for Research Evaluation and Social Assessment.

Dr Bev James is the principal of Public Policy & Research. She has wide-ranging experience in policy analysis and management, social research and evaluation.