We need urgent action from government, business and the not-for-profit sector on the financing and supply of more affordable and social housing for older people, writes Jo Toohey.

Australians are celebrating living longer, yet surprisingly, we know very little about how older people are faring in their communities.

If it is true that we measure what matters, then in the context of a rapidly ageing population, the absence of good data on the wellbeing of older people is a striking omission.

Jo Toohey
Jo Toohey

The economic data is in. Mature age workers contribute $27.4 billion per annum to the economy, their uncosted contribution as carers of people with a disability and carers of grandchildren is $22 billion per annum and their volunteering is valued at $16.3 billion per annum.

But a picture of the wellbeing of older people has been elusive until now.

New research commissioned by The Benevolent Society and conducted by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling at the University of Canberra is changing that.

The Index of Wellbeing of Older Australians (IWOA) is the first tool of its kind that allows us to drill down into our cities, towns and suburbs to give us an accurate picture of the welfare of our over-65s.

The picture that is emerging is a wellbeing divide among older people. Large concentrations of over 65s are experiencing low wellbeing on the fringes of major cities compared to inner-city areas, with many finding that housing stress is placing a crippling burden on their quality of life.

The appropriateness and affordability of your housing is the most important predictor of whether you will experience high or low wellbeing as you get older.

To put it plainly, if you are in the private rental market in your later years, you are likely to be doing it tough.

Housing stress is all-consuming. Once the rent is paid (usually from government benefits once you reach 65), it leaves little else for food, health, energy and transport costs.

This struggle is the reality for a small percentage of older people right now. After spending most of their lives contributing to the wealth of our economy and our communities, is this any way to repay our older citizens?

Rates of home ownership amongst older people have continued to decline, yet the low rate of the aged pension assumes home ownership. Rental assistance is insufficient to protect people against the costs of private rental in a capital city.

With the number of people aged over 65 set to almost double by 2050, we need to act without delay.

The price of doing nothing is troubling.

Unless we fix housing affordability, increasing numbers of (currently) younger people will reach retirement without home equity, and face a poor quality of life until the end of their lives. And the disparity between older Australians experiencing high and low wellbeing will become increasingly wider.

A lack of data is no longer an excuse for treating housing affordability as a young person’s worry.

It is imperative that affordable housing become the centrepiece of a long-term comprehensive policy on ageing.

We need urgent action from all levels of government, business and the not-for-profit sector to collaborate on the financing and supply of more affordable and social housing for older people.

The pay offs for action will be handsome. Reduced demand on the health budget, because older renters won’t be forced to scrimp on preventative health care to pay the rent. Older Australians will be able to maintain independence at home for longer and stay connected to their communities and familiar networks of support.

Even more importantly, we’ll have made a conscious choice to put an end to the widening of the wellbeing divide. Let’s be a nation that prioritises the quality of life of our older generations – a country as wealthy as we are can do so much better.

Jo Toohey is CEO of The Benevolent Society.

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  1. Well done Benevolent Society! Housing needs much greater focus as part of a comprehensive national policy on ageing well in Australia. It’s long overdue.

  2. Hubby and I are private renters. We are not allowed to make adjustments (we are seniors &need modifications) , nor allowed a pet for company. It will be interesting to read information in the latest census how many elderly people are in a similar situation. Figures don’t lie. It would be wonderful if politicians have the gumption to do something about it!!!.

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