Do you want to be hidden away when you’re old?
Aged care. It’s not a very sexy topic. In fact many of us are so unwilling to consider elderly life, a successful architect in the sector has received death threats from residents opposed to the building of nursing homes in their neighbourhoods.
Seriously, death threats. Want to build a $12 million super-brothel with 40 rooms? Sure! But no old people thanks.
Maybe it’s because we don’t want to contemplate our own decline, but it’s become increasingly clear our modern tendency to group older people together in neatly delineated residential pockets isn’t working. A study released this week, perhaps unsurprisingly, found lonely people aged 60 and over faced a 22.6 per cent increased risk of death.
Jordanna Schriever wrote on AdelaideNow: “Lonely people had 41.5 per cent increased difficulty in tasks such as bathing, and dressing, toileting and eating, compared with 28.3 per cent for those who did not feel lonely.”
It is what it is. We can bemoan the breakdown of family structures and blame busy adult children for failing to look after their parents, but it’s highly unlikely many of us are going to back to traditions of three generations living under one roof.
And so we build more and more retirement complexes, that require more and more staff to create a feeling of community, and more and more effort for interaction with other generations, and it’s not working.
I attended a discussion recently hosted by Just Better Care, a home nursing agency. Two of the representatives from JBC, Fergus Nelson and Trish Noakes kept making the same point - once you’re old, you don’t really care much about material comfort. What you crave is connectedness.
“I think one of the problems at the moment is that everyone’s stuck in silos; there are all these different generations,” said Nelson. “We’re all a continuum: we all have different characteristics and there are people in the baby boomers that have characteristics of Y and vice versa. I have issues with lumping everyone into this and not broadening it out to that bigger picture.”
And lumped them we have.
Noakes used the Gold Coast, the dream destination of so many Australian retirees, to illustrate the point.
You know, the Gold Coast is full of those towers that people moved up into 20, 30 years ago. You go up there and it’s all behind closed doors. There are elderly people in their 80s sitting they’re waiting for somebody to knock on their door and come in. They don’t go out anymore, it’s not a community, it’s really hard to go down and when they come downstairs and they walk along that strip, there’s nothing that brings them in. There’s a real lack of community up there, and they’re sitting in their apartments, alone. They’re almost little prisons.
You can bet that’s not what any of them signed up for.
But still we build more and more aged enclaves, and we have to drive across the city to take the kids to visit their grandparents.
Unless our thinking and planning changes, a very large chunk of us are about to find out the hard way how unworkable this is.
Demographer Bernard Salt was also at this discussion and he had a message that would make anyone in the aged-care portfolio nervous.
There are approximately 4.4 million Baby Boomers in Australia, and 2.5 million in the current retirement generation. Over the next 20 years, those Boomers will become retirees.
“We have got 4.5 million people ready to jump into that space that now supports 2.5 million people.”
That squeeze might be exactly the thing we need to rethink how we house our different generations.
As well as being many in number, the Boomers are also, according to Salt, going to be bossy, and picky and vocal about what they want.
So there is a volume issue that needs to be managed with the baby boomers heading into retirement, but more importantly an attitudinal issue. This lot of baby boomers retiring, it’s the first generation of retirees that are university educated, opinionated, articulate, literate and with with time on their hands. These people are dangerous in retirement.
And if it’s connectedness they want, then they’re going to bloody-well demand it. Which makes the answer to the conundrum, not easy, but obvious.
Just as we’re slowly coming around to the idea that medium and high-density housing is the answer to limiting urban sprawl and the need for ever-increasing infrastructure, perhaps it’s time more of our urban planners realised this: housing that accommodates all generations in the one community is the only way to go.
It’s already happening in some of the more well-planned developments - children’s playgrounds alongside facilities for the elderly. Housing that works for both young families and single oldies. But it’s generally the exception and from this point on it should be the rule.
The community will take it from there. And the oldies won’t be the only ones that benefit.
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