Housing needs to be seen as an aged care issue and the two policy areas should be more closely linked, a leading researcher on homelessness among seniors has said.

Dr Maree Petersen of University of Queensland’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work said that housing was “integral to older people’s wellbeing, and integral to the operation of community aged care.”

Experts have described homelessness among seniors as “hidden” and difficult to quantify but service providers report increasing numbers of seniors, older women in particular, experiencing homelessness.

Dr Maree Petersen
Dr Maree Petersen

In a recent research paper Dr Petersen examined older women’s homelessness in Australia against international responses and found it was less of an issue in some European countries where housing – and social housing in particular – were better linked with welfare systems.

“Older people are being housed, and if they are at risk of homelessness they’re able to be housed quite quickly. It’s a different welfare structure,” Dr Petersen told Australian Ageing Agenda.

Last May a Senate inquiry into affordable housing in Australia found that the gradual decline in home ownership among seniors coupled with the continuing shortage of affordable rental properties “had serious implications” for older Australians who did not own their own home.

The report recommended the Federal Government review its aged care policies to determine how they could better assist seniors living in rental accommodation given the challenges they faced such as insecure tenure and difficulties having modifications installed.

Dr Petersen said that in countries such as Australia and the US there was a growing awareness that more nuanced responses were needed as not all homeless people were the same.

Older women who are homeless for the first time had largely led conventional lives, whereas people who had experienced homelessness over the long term may have been in and out of shelters or had mental health or substantive abuse issues, Dr Petersen said. “It’s about being able to understand there are different ways of thinking about homelessness and we can’t make assumptions,” she said.

Dr Petersen’s paper, based on interviews with local and international service providers as well as a literature review, reinforced that a range of housing types and supports were required.

“The point is that it really has to fit with women themselves and what they want,” Dr Petersen said. “A lot of older people like retirement villages, but some don’t. Some want to live in a city and like apartments, others might prefer shared housing.”

The importance of specialist and targeted services for older people, specifically the Assistance with Care and Housing for the Aged (ACHA) program, was also singled out in the research.

ACHA was significant because it recognised that if older people were not housed they were at risk of premature entry into residential aged care, she said.

The program could assess people’s needs in a holistic way that included not just housing but also their health and welfare.

“I think the success of the program also has a lot to do with the workers; they are very skilled at working with older people, they have specialist skills in that area,” said Dr Petersen.

Dr Petersen’s latest paper also noted the dearth of research into the issue of homelessness among seniors, including in Australia.

“It would be good to get a clear understanding of the life course of women… Sometimes we get caught up in individual characteristics – such as the impact of divorce or illness – rather than looking at the structural concerns.

“It’s about the accumulation of disadvantage over the life; things that happened in women’s lives in the 1960s – the fact they had to leave school early to work because they were a young parent and there weren’t welfare structures in place.”

Dr Petersen’s paper, Addressing older women’s homelessness: Service and housing models, was published in the Australian Journal of Social Issues.

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