Why Ireland needs to rethink how it approaches housing for the elderly

Gráinne McGuinness talks to Pat O'Mahony, from Inniscarra, who has written a book calling for a fresh approach to housing for older people. 
Why Ireland needs to rethink how it approaches housing for the elderly

Ireland’s population of people over the age of 65 is set to grow by 70 persons per day for the next 30 years. Picture: Stock

A Cork educator who spent many years living in the southern hemisphere has written a book calling for a rethink on how Ireland approaches housing for the elderly.

Inniscarra native and former headmaster of Newbridge College, Pat O’Mahony, believes changes will benefit not just older people but the entire community.

He outlines his thinking in ‘Rethinking Housing Options for Senior Citizens – Retirement Villages in Every Irish Community’.

Mr O’Mahony highlights the fact that in Ireland, as around the world, people are living longer, with Ireland’s population of people over the age of 65 set to grow by 70 persons per day for the next 30 years.

He believes that currently many older people, irrespective of their means, reside in relative isolation, even when they live in urban areas, in homes unsuited to their needs. Then, as they become frail, their need for community-based healthcare and homecare often goes unmet. Consequently, many end up in expensive nursing homes prematurely.

Mr O’Mahony, who spent most of the 70s and 80s working in Australia, believes that country and others show it can be handled in a better way.

“Australia and New Zealand have responded to this challenge by developing the retirement village model,” he says.

“Today, some 13% of Australians and New Zealanders over 60 reside in retirement villages.

“If Ireland were to adopt this approach it could enhance the lives of a significant proportion of our elderly.”

He argues that the benefits of this housing model will also extend across the community, once retirement housing is put at the heart of the community. He offers examples where living space in retirement homes is also offered to others in society, such as university students, with benefits for both the older and younger people.

“This is not about isolating people, this is about linking people into the community,” he tells The Echo. “There is a real need for major generational connectivity where there is a benefit to both sides.”

In his book, Pat looks at the retirement village model through the prism of the researched needs of older people and, as well as explaining how retirement villages operate in Australia, the book looks at what we know about our older citizens, what they feel they need in terms of housing, and what needs to be done to establish fit-for-purpose retirement villages in Irish communities – rural and urban. It also looks at how harnessing the full potential of assistive technology can greatly extend the capacity of older people to live independently in their communities.

The author draws on research from both Ireland and abroad in making the case for retirement villages.

“Housing alone, irrespective of its age-friendliness, is not enough,” Mr O’Mahony says. 

“Health and care services generally must be integrated into the whole housing package. Besides, processes must be put in place to facilitate sustainable and mutually beneficial interactions between those living in the retirement village and those in the wider community.

“If we get the ‘village’ model right, many Irish in their golden years should be able to live with a high level of independence and a good quality of life for much longer than might otherwise be the case.”

Mr O’Mahony is critical of current Irish planning, which he believes is developer-led when it should be managed and planned by the local authorities, He is calling for a more structured approach to planning in Ireland, with areas zoned for retirement.

We discuss recent news of Government plans for new incentives to encourage older people to downsize and therefore make larger homes available for families. He said such plans will only work if there is somewhere suitable for the downsizers to go.

“I argue in my book that there is a need to incentivise but you incentivise in the context of there being something to move to,” he says. 

“Moving from a big house to a small house is of no real benefit … unless you get the location right.

“These places need to be close to healthcare, to shopping, to religious places of worship, to public transport and that can only be in the centre of communities. That means that you have to zone.”

Mr O’Mahony believes it is essential that local government zone appropriate sites in all communities for retirement villages for both private buyers and those on social housing.

“The retirement village model being promoted in the book is very much about providing senior citizens with housing options that take account of their stage in life - and their specific needs – fulfilment, social, health, transport, retail, cultural, religious, care, and so on,” he says.

“It is about providing them with attractive housing options they may choose to live in rather than with housing they are, in any sense, required to live in.

“We need to think of home not as one single place where one is born and dies in, but rather the place where we reside because it is convenient for what we want to do in our life at a particular point in time.”

Paperback copies of Rethinking Housing Options for Senior Citizens – Retirement Villages in Every Irish Community may be purchased for €10 from retirementvillagesireland.ie which was established to promote the book and the concept of retirement villages. They may also be purchased from selected bookshops – the details of which are available on the website. A free pdf copy of the book is also available on the website.

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