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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Conor Breen: Housing for an ageing population

Conor Breen is the Policy Officer – Research Translation at CARDI. He graduated in law from University College Dublin and has previously worked for the Education Directorate at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris. He then moved to London to manage the research function at PR agency The Communication Group and also worked as Senior Researcher at the National Association of Pension Funds.

The population across the island of Ireland is ageing. In the Republic of Ireland (ROI), 22% of the population will be aged 65 or over by 2041, compared to 11% now. In Northern Ireland (NI), 24% will be over the age of 65 by the same year, compared to 14% now (McGill, 2010).

The ageing demographic is a result of many factors, but the primary reason is that we are living longer. This is a big success story in terms of medical advances, but it also raises issues in many areas in terms of policy and practice. The question of whether we are ready for an ageing population is an important one in relation to dementia, pensions, healthcare, long-term care, transport and many other areas. One of these is housing.

On 13 February 2014, the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland (CARDI) held a seminar in Belfast which examined issues related to housing and the ageing population.

In the keynote address, Professor Anthea Tinker noted a growing emphasis on housing as a crucial ingredient in enabling older people to live independently in their own homes. According to Professor Tinker, key factors related to housing and older people include growing numbers of people living alone, the extent of under-occupation of housing and the poor condition of many homes.

Two of the key themes emerging from the seminar were the effect of housing on the physical and mental health of older people and the potential of new technologies to help people live independently into old age. These two issues are vital aspects of our housing policy for a future with more people over the age of 65 than ever before.

Housing and health

Housing and where we live can have a significant effect on physical and mental health. This is particularly true for groups who tend to spend more time in the home, including older people. Good quality housing can reduce the risk of falls and protect against the effects of fuel poverty. It can enable earlier discharge from hospital and prevent readmission.

Housing can also have an effect on mental health in terms of isolation, loneliness and social exclusion. For older people, well-designed housing options can reduce the level of admissions into residential care (ADASS / Housing LIN, 2011).

Fuel poverty

Fuel poverty is a particular concern for older people in NI. In 2011, 52% of people aged 60-74 years were in fuel poverty and 66% of those aged 75+ years were in fuel poverty, compared to 34% of the under 60 age group (Public Health Agency, 2013).

Living in fuel poverty affects health in several different ways. If an older person is living in fuel poverty, cold weather increases the risk of death from existing cardiovascular disease, stroke and respiratory conditions (Goodman, et al., 2011). Illnesses such as flu, heart disease and strokes are exacerbated by the cold. In addition where a large proportion of income is spent on fuel, there may be less for items such as food, leading to a poor diet. Cold can also aggravate specific conditions such as arthritis (Public Health Agency, 2013).

Falls can have a negative impact on older people from fractures that require hospital admissions right through to being a cause of death. Indirectly falls can reduce confidence among older people who may confine themselves to their homes, thus increasing social exclusion and decreasing physical activity (CARDI, 2012).

Adaptations

The quality of housing has a significant impact on falls and the risk of falls, as housing adaptations such as adding guide rails and removing hazards such as steep steps can reduce the risk of falling. A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the benefits of housing adaptations showed that 62% of people who had minor adaptations to their homes (grab rails or handrails) felt safer from the risk of accident and 77% perceived a positive effect on their health (Heywood, 2001).

According to the 2011 Census, 28% of people in NI aged 65-74 state that their daily activities are limited a lot and 21% say their daily activities are limited a little. Yet 88% of houses in NI had no adaptations which can assist with limitations to daily activities (NISRA, 2012).

Technology and housing

New technologies such as telehealth and telecare have been hailed as an important solution for helping older people to remain in their homes: making it easier to manage long-term health conditions, enabling independent living and helping to combat social isolation (Hawley, 2013). The potential advantages are apparent to people with cognitive difficulties, physical limitations and disabilities and chronic illnesses that require close management (CARDI, 2013).

In the near future, technological developments will see wireless sensors and internet access technologies becoming cheaper and more widely accessible. This may lead to easier retro-fitting of existing houses for telecare, telehealth and ambient assisted living (Lewin, et al., 2010).

Advances in telecare and telehealth may lead to widespread access for older people to augmented reality devices, sophisticated health monitoring and new technologies in the home for assisted living (ZD Net, 2013).

Rapidly advancing technology is a major avenue for improving housing for older people, particularly if retro-fitting with new technologies does become accessible and affordable. At the same time, it is important that technology does not replace human care.

The positive effect of new technologies will depend on the way they are introduced and integrated into wider forms of support, including informal carers, social workers, general practices and physicians (Steventon, 2013).

It is also important that concerns of older people on issues such as privacy, self-reliance, independence and threats to existing services are addressed with advances in technology.

Conclusion

With the ageing population there will be policy challenges relating to housing if action is not taken to understand and cater for housing demands of older people. It is important to get issues like housing policy and the introduction of new technology right given the effect on the physical and mental health of older people.

Read the presentations from the CARDI seminar, “Housing for an ageing population” that took place in Belfast on 13 February.

Read Conor's 3 housing wishes.

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Opinion

This article was written on 28 February 2014. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.