Our ageing society is going to put significant pressure on our ability to meet the demands of the senior cohort as the years roll on.
Sadly, we seem ill-prepared despite the many reports and warnings about the wave of demand for different living needs that is as inevitable as night following day.
Rather, many local authorities and state planning agencies seem fixated on the needs of younger and working age residents. Few have recognised the rising urgency to address future housing options for seniors. The exception so far seems to have been Brisbane, where Lord Mayor Graham Quirk recently announced possible incentives for developers to build aged care and retirement facilities in places where they are most needed, which is where people live now.
Here at least is recognition that we cannot in effect evict seniors to suitable housing on the outskirts of the urban fabric simply because this is where there are available sites that are competitively priced. Seniors want to be able to age in the community they grew up in – to continue to visit their local shops or local doctor and to feel part of that community. But finding sites in established metropolitan areas has proven difficult, and for retirement and aged care operators, competing for sites with mainstream developers often leaves them at a disadvantage. Providing some infrastructure levy relief will hopefully enhance the competitive position of these operators and help stimulate more supply in established areas.
But why aren’t more local governments or planning agencies following Brisbane’s lead and recognising the importance of doing something now, before a shortage of suitable accommodation options becomes acute? And what other measures are needed to prepare us for this future?
We shouldn’t be in any doubt that it will differ from what we know today. According to the Productivity Commission – just one of many authoritative sources on this subject – there will be 4 million more Australians aged over 75 by the year 2060. Imagine the entire population of Sydney today being over 75 year of age and remember this is just the increase in the 75-plus age group. Not only will there be more of us aged 75-plus, there will be a lot more of us in very advanced years, in need of residential care. In 2012, for every 100 babies born, there was one person aged 100 or more. By 2060, there will be 25 centenarians for every 100 babies.
What this means is a different housing demand profile, and the flexibility in urban planning schemes to create it. Many seniors will want to choose smaller residences on single levels, which can include small apartments with lift access but no stairs. Current planning schemes across Australia can make it difficult to provide this sort of option in established areas, and new projects rarely include it.
Others will want the managed environment of a retirement village. Again, many planning schemes make the provision of these facilities in established areas problematic or impossible. Others still will need residential aged care, and the same planning and regulatory hurdles can apply.
The problems are not limited to planning either; community attitudes need to change. Remarkably, some of the residential aged care projects our practice has been involved with have provoked NIMBY-like opposition by residents, who seem to be under the impression that they are immune from ageing or these types of facilities, or who perhaps see no future for themselves living in their current neighbourhood.
Communities need to appreciate that the nature of our housing mix today largely reflects the needs of yesterday’s society. We are constantly playing catch-up with the past. But when faced with a clear picture of fast emerging needs for a changed mix of housing product in the near future, we ought to have the sense to realise that parts of the housing mix suited to our society 20 or 30 years ago will have to give way to product designed for changing needs. In short, we need to be prepared for the changes this will bring to our own neighbourhoods, and rather than oppose it, embrace it.
If we put our head in the sand by looking at this as an issue that can be postponed or deferred, demand for suitable seniors accommodation will fast outpace supply (if it hasn’t already) and we deserve condemnation for being both so short-sighted and selfish.