Making housing, shaping old age

A summary of the PhD  thesis of the same name, exploring industry engagement in older persons housing. 

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The experiences and meanings of old age are not fixed. They are not predetermined by biology (although some parts are) or by policy (again, some parts are). Of course, old age comprises many experiences and has many meanings. From different perspectives old age is an economic burden, an intergenerational imbalance, a long age of comfortable retirement, gendered poverty, precarity, isolation, or, for a range of aged care and service providers, increased demand and new commercial opportunities.

As a society we define the collective social imaginaries of old age that underpin policy, products and practices. These are the images, stories and beliefs that mould assumptions about what old age is, or what it should be. We make imaginaries of the third age - a time of retirement, comfort, fulfilment – and of the fourth age – a time of increased dependence and frailty. These social imaginaries translate ambiguity and diversity into fixed, communicable, singular, simplified, one-dimensional caricatures of the third age, and opposing images of the fourth age, while ignoring uneven experiences and the transition between.

Before I started researching housing and ageing, I was certain that old age, especially for women, existed in a philosophical void. It was something that happened in private, hidden and thinly theorised.
But old age is anything but personal. Positive ageing is not an individual act, it does not exist independently of the vectors of wealth, society, and housing.

Housing. It is impossible to consider old age without also talking about housing. Housing is central to people’s physical and emotional wellbeing as they age. It also has a role in social and economic policy. The Australian housing solution of mass homeownership is embedded in culture and in policy that supports and subsidises this tenure. Homeownership is the ‘fourth pillar’ of Australia’s retirement income insurance (joining the age pension, mandatory and voluntary superannuation). Homeownership is a solution to providing an affordable and secure old age because, by retirement and with outright ownership assumed, housing costs are minimal and households can live frugally on a state-provided pension that can be kept low relative to other countries.

Yet, the homeownership pillar is wobbling. Increasing diversity and disparity in contemporary housing pathways, through the life course and for different generations, unsettle the foundations of this solution.

A crisis of housing affordability and changing (delaying, declining) patterns of home ownership are likely to limit choices for younger generations (X, Y and Z) as they reach retirement, as well as for current retirees whose housing histories have not followed widely assumed norms. More are renting across all age groups, including low-income older Australians, and disproportionately older women. Housing and ageing are deeply entwined - in unsteady social structures, in concomitant quality of life, and in the stories we tell about baby boomers and their assumed housing wealth.

The ageing population (demand), and assumptions about wealthy baby boomers (capacity to fund demand) motivate the housing industry (along with other industries) to engage with the business of old age. 

The retirement housing industry provides an example.

Retirement communities (both ‘villages’ and apartments) are a housing outcome that is, by definition, a market response to needs and choices of older people. This industry’s constituent companies operate within overlapping property and aged care interests. They are currently reconsidering what was historically a clear distinction between retirement housing (for the third age) and aged-care services (for the fourth age), motivated by growing demand as their residents age, and by a major transformation of aged care towards a market-led system.

Industry representatives describe retirement housing as a quality-of-life solution, offering appropriate housing to support residents ageing in place, and a ready-made community to counter social isolation. They describe it as part of the solution to reducing the growing cost of the ageing population, providing relief for government budgets by delaying entry to aged care, utilising the private sector and the personal wealth of retirees, and building targeted local community infrastructure. And, they describe it as a housing supply solution, setting out a path to downsizing and more efficient use of existing housing stock in growing cities. Concerns about old age and care are weaponised in the familiar and politicised housing solution of more supply.

The process by which  industry groups reproduce and gradually transform social imaginaries of old age is circular; ideas, discourses, beliefs and norms underpin social structures and shape the commercial housing-and-ageing outcomes produced, which in turn reinforce those norms.

Three vignettes illustrate housing industry engagement in shaping beliefs about old age.

1. Shaping a ‘good’ old age

Industry actors reproduce the imaginary of the third age in marketing, in the way they talk about housing-and-ageing, and in the products they develop. They (along with the rest of us) collectively construct social imaginaries of what a ‘good’ old age is, layering personal perspectives, pre-existing beliefs, commercial interests, and dominant cultural ideologies including noisy narratives about the ageing population and baby boomers’ housing wealth.

In the third age imaginary of an independent, healthy, social old age, retirees have the resources and agency to make individual choices to meet their desires and needs. The industry’s political and consumer messaging claims that by making good housing choices older Australians can enrich their quality of life, use their housing wealth efficiently (for example by downsizing or through reverse mortgages), and ultimately save government money by reducing their later life healthcare costs. A ‘good’ old age for all.

Meanwhile, a cultural obsession with autonomy and choice marginalises ‘other’ experiences of old age. The focus on the third age can push the subsequent fourth age into the shadows. This perspective treats dependence as a clinical and individualised need, rather than as an essential aspect of relations between social beings throughout life. It also defines the third and fourth ages as binary conditions, when the reality is that the transition from independent to dependent is diverse, uneven, susceptible to exogenous events and luck, and mediated by social buffers (wealth).

Reinforcing a third age / fourth age binary, and a narrow imaginary of what a ‘good’ old age is, limits outcomes that can serve increasingly diverse older Australians. Third age aspirations will not adequately meet fourth age challenges.

2. Positioning housing (beyond design)

Urban and built outcomes reproduce and reinforce accepted views of third and fourth ages. Professionals involved in the production of housing, and especially in the development of retirement housing, embrace established positions (hopes) about housing and old age:
  • That supportive housing delays the need for aged care, prolonging the third age.
  • That supportive housing enables aged care (when it is needed) to be delivered through home-care services, limiting the need for residential aged care.
  • That housing-and-care outcomes can match changing housing-and-care needs, creating a gradual transition to increased care.

The belief that changing housing and care needs can be matched efficiently by housing and care supply is the myth of a seamless transition. This perspective is a myth because it doesn’t acknowledge that supply of services (and housing) is locally uneven, nor that there are many emotional, social, financial and cultural barriers to changing housing through the life course.

Because the structural problems of housing-and-ageing are knotted and complex, physical design solutions (accessible homes, smart homes, universal design, retirement villages, and innovative precincts that co-locate aged care with other multi-generational uses) are often seen (promoted) as panacea. Supply and design solutions provide a practical course of action for policy makers, non-contentious and with few policy trade-offs, and more tangible and immediate than addressing structural demand-side and supply-side issues of housing affordability, taxation and welfare.

The benefits of designing for longevity through universal design are glaringly self-evident; this should be embedded in all apartment, house and urban design. But, design will never provide a solution to the social problems of housing-and-ageing.

3. Re-defining care

Aged care policy and philosophy – defining who provides care and how - has transformed during the past century, from a private family activity, to a professional nursing service often delivered in institutions, to a range of care services that can be purchased in a market.
The topic of aged care registered internationally in political agendas in the late 1970s, during the crisis of the welfare state that questioned the sustainability of state-supported systems. The ageing population ‘problem’ is a political, social, ideological and economic construction of resources and scarcity, rather than a purely demographic calculation. An ideology of individualism, personal responsibility, small government, and privatisation of services has supported major recent reforms that aimed to de-link care from accommodation and encourage ageing in place; to give older individuals more power in choosing their care; and to encourage private market involvement.

‘Care’ is a wide spectrum of services. Some is regulated and funded as clinical aged care. Care also includes services that simply make living more supported. Some of these are government funded, via a needs assessment and waiting list, but they can also be purchased privately in a growing care service market. The aged care industry actively redefines care as an individual service and product. Morphologies such as retirement housing can be infrastructures of positive ageing that support access to this wider, limitless, definition of care, for older Australians who can afford it. As providers pursue services that are profitable and that attract wealthy retirees, choices and support will widen for some.

There are risks and potentials of redefining care in this way, and they follow the creases of uneven housing wealth.

*  *  *

Longer and more diverse lives mean there is cause for optimism. However, there are tensions between a global ageing population ‘problem’ and the individualised uncertainties of growing old. The risks of the enmeshed housing-and-ageing system are that property market conditions challenge the equity and resilience of the intergenerational social compact and undermine the wellbeing of older people. Housing wealth underpins unequal experiences of old age, yet the housing behaviours of older individuals are not to blame, and nor will they correct these imbalances.

The idea that ageing is a personal and individualised experience is damaging. Old age is shaped by material and social conditions; it is anything but purely personal. To make progress in supporting an ageing Australia, practical philosophies of old age can better centre housing systems and outcomes, and reconceptualise them as essential infrastructures of care beyond design and market responses.