Growing Old (Dis)gracefully 1

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Thursday, September 29th, 2016
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If you were aged 23 when The Sex Pistols first burst onto the music scene in 1975, you’ll be 65 years old next year. Think of that – the first generation of punk rockers will be entering retirement.

But the attitudes they take with them into the nursing home or retirement village will be entirely different to those of previous generations. Is the industry ready for this next wave of seniors?

The endless statistics now being churned out on our ageing population are becoming a blur. The ABS will tell you that the proportion of us Aussies aged 65 and over in the 1970s was just  eight per cent. Within a decade or so, that will rise to one in four of us. Meanwhile, the Productivity Commission’s report of late 2013 will tell you that “the population of people aged 75 or more years is expected to rise by 4 million from 2012 to 2060, increasing from about 6.4 to 14.4 per cent of the population.”

We get it. There will be lots and lots more old people, supported by fewer people of working (and taxpaying) age.

Where they’re all going to live has large parts of the property industry belatedly starting to focus on the response.

“Total private and public investment requirements over this 50 year period are estimated to be more than 5 times the cumulative investment made over the last half century, which reveals the importance of an efficient investment environment,” the Productivity Commission noted.

So, lots and lots more investment is needed, a lot of which translates into built form. In other words, we need lots more housing for oldies.

This usually translates into two types of market response – retirement living, and aged care. Some organisations provide both but many (surprisingly) opt for either one or the other.

The retirement living side is defined by housing designed for seniors who remain active, mobile and largely capable of looking after themselves. Here, there are some very big numbers. According to research presented by villages.com.au, in the short space of time from 2015 to 2018, there will be a requirement of $7.3 billion new capital required to meet demand from this market.

That’s billion with a ‘b’ – and in the space of just three or four years. And that’s presuming the current take-up rate of five per cent of people who are eligible for retirement living options and who actually take up the option, remains the same. If the rate at which Australians eligible for retirement living actually making use of it rises to eight per cent (a more globally typical level), that $7.3 billion gets exponentially bigger. Some research presented by Stockland pointed to a $35 billion capital requirement at current take up rates by 2040.

The residential aged care market – really a better term for what used to be called ‘nursing homes’ – is just as daunting in terms of forecast demand. According to Bentleys accountants, we will need 9,000 new residential aged care beds per annum for the next 10 years. This translates into around $20 billion of new construction just to keep pace with demand in the next decade. This is in addition to what’s needed in retirement living.

So there are the numbers, or some of them at least, which demonstrate how big this wave of demand is about to get.

But what I don’t hear much about – although some savvy operators are onto this – is the question not of numbers but of attitude.

You just can’t presume tomorrow’s 70-year-olds will resemble anything like your grandparents may have been at 70. For one thing, they’ll be fitter and more active. The Sex Pistols Generation will have access to the most sophisticated health care ever, and many will have the means to pay for it.

The idea of leaving the family home for some low-grade retirement living unit that once happily housed prior generations of retirees just won’t appeal. Their demands and standards will be completely different.

To attract this market, switched-on retirement living developers are creating product which is more closely aligned to the tropical resorts our generation of punks have probably been frequenting in recent years.

They may have been singing ‘no future’ in their youth, but it turns out most had a pretty good future, and accumulated housing assets and opportunities for travel as they went. Unlike today’s ‘generation rent’ who may retire still with large mortgages and low savings, members of our punk generation are more likely to own high quality homes outright, matched with healthy savings balances.

Just because they’re getting old, they’re not going to tolerate being treated as if they’re somehow mentally deficient. They have enjoyed high standards of living and they aren’t about to compromise. Indeed, I’m told that one of the biggest hurdles faced by today’s retirement living providers, even when the quality of product is better than a Balinese resort, is the stigma associated with the term ‘retirement living.’ Maybe ‘rock n’ roll living’ might have more success?

A similar revolution in product is happening at the aged care end. Pokey rooms, dim corridors, grey vinyl flooring and the depressing smell of hospital antiseptic will have the older punks doing 180s in their wheel chairs and disappearing. Seniors in need of higher levels of care will still want that delivered in a higher standard environment than previous generations, or no deal. More natural light, better quality facilities, personal services and overall amenity will be in demand and those with the means will be prepared to pay for it.

And if our geriatric punks are suffering from dementia or other forms of debilitation, it will be their families who insist on higher standards on their behalf.

There will be plenty who don’t have the means to pay of course, and this is where government will inevitably find itself forking out truckloads of taxpayer cash in the future. What if even the people without the means and without the savings have higher expectations in the future? No wonder our governments are worried.

At the root of this change is a massive change of attitude. Previous generations of elderly went through life with little in the way of assets and just ‘made do.’ They endured parsimony (even self-imposed) and were grateful for the basics.

But then the baby boomers, and then the punk generation, enjoyed much higher standards of living and personal wealth. Not only that, their cultural experience was one which challenged social norms. Prior generations were more respectful, more compliant, and less demanding. Boomers and punks are more demanding, expect and want more, are less tolerant of conforming to social norms and more likely to demand personalised approaches to care rather than institutional ones.

We may all be getting older at a faster rate, but we’re also going to be handful once we do. Myself included.

God save the Queen.

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  1. Ross Johnson

    If there is pressure upon retirement villages and aged care facilities to lift their game in terms of the physical environment, then that is a welcome development.

    People should be given dignity as they age. Rich or poor, they deserve not just a crumby environment in which to exist but the best and most positive physical environment in which they can really enjoy the latter years of their life.