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ROYAL COMMISSION: Innovative housing and barriers to accommodation

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety held two days of hearings last week, running from 13-14 August, in Sydney investigating accommodation and design in aged care.

Maria Brenton, Senior Cohousing Ambassador of the United Kingdom (UK) Cohousing Trust explained the success of the Older Women's Cohousing (OWCH) community in the UK. [Source: iStock]

These hearings immediately fell back to back with recent Royal Commission hearings, which ran from 10-13 August, covering the response to COVID-19 by the aged care sector and relevant Government bodies.

The main accommodation topics focussed on included building and design standards, physical design and models of residential aged care, dementia-friendly design and small home design models, secure housing, incentivising alternative accommodation for aged care services, and innovative accommodation models for ageing in place.

Community run cohousing in the UK could work in Australia

On the first day of the hearings, 13 August, Maria Brenton, Senior Cohousing Ambassador of the United Kingdom (UK) Cohousing Trust, and Hedi Argent, a 91 year old member of Older Women's Cohousing (OWCH), provided their experiences with cohousing. 

OWCH have have created a safe community run facility and space for older women who are unable to afford their own homes.

A former academic, Ms Brenton explained how she started researching cohousing because of her interest in old age, particularly around women who are largely left alone on poor incomes, which lead to the foundation of the OWCH.

Ms Brenton researched many different models in Holland, Denmark, the United States and Canada to view how these countries were handling accommodation for older women. She found that Holland's "living groups" were the most translatable model that could be implemented well in the UK.

"In our country, we are still labouring, as I fear Australia is, under a sort of care or welfare model in relation to older people, as if they are objects to be looked after and “poor things”. We are trying to help the British system change from that “old poor” emphasis, which is so old-fashioned, it’s unbelievable, and older people don’t want it," explains Ms Brenton.

"Women who tend to live alone and, when their families leave the nest, then they’re quite likely to get a bit lonely and isolated, particularly, if they’re in housing situations where they don’t know their neighbours. We wanted to address that problem."

Ms Brenton says the aim of the OWCH group was to be socially and economically inclusive of women who couldn't afford to buy their own homes. However, because the Government wasn’t providing grants, the group had to find its own funding through unusual means to build eight flats.

The OWCH has 26 resident members across 25 flats, with eight non-residential members who are potential future members and interact with the community quite regularly.

Nine years ago, Ms Argent became a member of the Older Women's Cohousing (OWCH) and has been living happily in the community, finding it a wonderful experience.

"I thought it was my responsibility to make plans for my old age rather than wait till I became decrepit and other people had to make arrangements for me. I never intended for other people to decide what I would do in my old age. And this is the way that we do it. I mean, we are all independent," explains Ms Argent.

"We manage ourselves. Nobody tells us what – we are not done unto. We do it ourselves. We manage ourselves. And we are becoming old and staying independent. I think we are staying healthier than we would normally stay."

The community has an elected management committee and all guidelines proposed need to be signed off by the community members as a consensus. 

OWCH members were involved in the choosing of the site location as well as the architects so that the facility would be age-friendly and accessible. Due to the design of the site, it was unintentionally created to be dementia friendly and safe.

The success of the OWCH has encouraged the UK Government to put $163 million towards community led housing initiatives, including cohousing.

Commissioner Tony Pagone QC thanked the witnesses for providing valuable information about the success of a community organised cohousing facility, saying it helps the Commission find the best arrangements for people who are ageing.

Housing market problems arising for older people

On day two of the hearings, 14 August, a panel was held with Dr Brendon Radford, Manager of Policy and Advocacy at National Seniors; Peta Harwood, Manager of Development Services Branch, Brisbane City Council; and Simon Schrapel AM Chief Executive Officer, Uniting Communities.

All three addressed the issues older people are facing when finding appropriate accommodation that suits their needs. 

Dr Radford provided research undertaken by National Seniors, which found that the main barrier for older people, in terms of staying at home for longer, is the lack of accessible housing and a lack of housing that people actually want to live in. 

"Probably the primary problem that we see, is that unfortunately the market is not providing housing that people want or need, and this is something that needs to be addressed," explains Mr Radford.

"The other major barrier for older people are economic barriers. So things like stamp duty; the cost of stamp duty really stops people from downsizing to housing that they really need and that is more appropriate for them. And along that, also just the general costs of the houses that are involved with downsizing to appropriate housing."

Mr Schrapel explained to the Commission the United Communities U City development in Adelaide city centre, which is a unique, "radical mixed use development" that provides accessible retirement living accommodation, accessible hotel accommodation and specialist disability accommodation.

He explained that the major accommodation challenges he sees for older people is affordability and accessibility.

"We know that for some people, they enter residential aged care prematurely because the properties they are in are really not suitable for their needs and they can’t live there independently as possible," explains Mr Schrapel.

"The accessibility to home-based aged care programs that can actually support people in the home is essential and we find a lot of people not being able to access those programs and they’re not adequate to actually maintain them living independently in the home."

Mr Schrapel adds that there needs to be a national strategy for housing with a component that focuses on housing for older Australians.

"I think it’s very sad that we don’t have a national strategy that actually ensures some coherence in relation to the way Australians are able to access housing right throughout the lifespan, really," says Mr Schrapel.

Mr Schrapel says that although currently the majority of older Australians own their own homes, the trend is shifting across all age groups which is creating issues in terms of rent affordability, particularly in the private rental market.

He adds that for older Australians, who are going to be financially disadvantaged later in life when their income reduces due to retirement, it is a significant issue because they aren't able to retain the house they live in, either because of amenity issues or they can't afford the rent.

Ms Harwood provided her opinion on accommodation challenges for older people in Brisbane, saying that the supply of purpose-built accommodation is a big problem that they attempted to rectify in Brisbane with the current Universal Housing Design Incentive.

Brisbane City Council had research that indicated that there would be a shortfall in supply of purpose built retirement and aged care accommodation, so the Council sought to incentivise that type of accommodation so older people didn't have to move out of the Brisbane area and could age in place in an appropriate home within their community.

Mr Radford even said he believed the Brisbane City Council incentive was more attractive than a proposition but forward by the Commission.

The next Royal Commission hearings running from 31 August - 3 September as a live webcast, covering key design issues for a new home care system.


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