Secure housing for an ageing population

In the 50 to 90-year-old age group home owners were generally wealthier and have a stronger sense of security.

By Professor Christine Stephens and Dr Agnes Szabo.

Owning a home is central to everyone’s sense of economic, social and psychological security, but for older people, this is particularly the case. Housing tenure is critical to the health of older people and it is something that needs the support of local and central government policies and provisions.

There is an expectation that the majority of people will own their own homes by the time they retire but, over the past 20 years, there has been a general decline in home ownership among people in mid-life. The fall in home ownership amongst older Māori and Pasifika people is even more prounounced. These patterns may not be reversible so the effects of renting on older people, and particularly on vulnerable groups as our population rapidly  ages, needs serious cosideration.

Our research with older New Zealanders has shown that renters have poorer quality of life and poorer mental health than home owners, and these inequalities increase as people age. Over 3000 participants in Massey University’s Health Work and Retirement Study, aged between 50 and 90, reported on their housing arrangements and wellbeing between 2010 and 2014. Home owners were generally wealthier and more likely to be working, living with their spouse, and of non-Māori descent.

They also had a stronger sense of security. People who do not own their homes have higher symptoms of depression and poorer quality of life. These gaps in wellbeing widened as the same people grew older. The home owners generally gained on their good mental health and also reported improved quality of life over time. Home ownership also protected them from the effects of loneliness on physical health.

Authors Professor Christine Stephens and Dr Agnes Szabo.

Renting versus home ownership

In contrast, renters remained at the same low levels of mental health and quality of life across the years; they were also more likely to suffer the effects of loneliness on their physical health. These differences were found in addition to the differences explained by the lower economic living standards of renters.

International studies consistently show that home owners have better mental and physical health, higher quality of life, more social and family relationships, and lower mortality than renters. The effects on physical health may be explained by the generally poorer quality of rental houses and greater likelihood of damp, cold, and noise. But the psychological effects seem to be due to feelings of insecurity, worry, and lack of belonging. 

Owning a home supports a sense of security, feelings of being in control of one’s life, and developing secure relationships. Dr Janine Wiles and her colleagues at the University of Auckland have shown that the sense of home, which contributes to security for older people, extends beyond the house to the neighbourhood and its facilities and social connections.

Because of a rapid reduction in home ownership in New Zealand, and the difficulties of achieving home ownership late in life, as a society we need to provide security to all older people. For this to happen, renters need to achieve the same sense of status and security afforded to home owners through the provision of housing by the state or through legislation and support.

Current policies around ageing in place provide support for older people so that they can stay at home, rather than be institutionalised. But people can only ‘age in place’ if they have a secure home. These policies need to be extended to provide support for all people to remain in secure housing, whether rented or owned.

Policies should also enable all people to remain in the neighbourhoods and areas that provide them with a sense of security, social support, and opportunities for participation and contribution. Rather than creating segregated ghettos for older people who can afford them, the coming population shifts require considered and focused town planning by both central government and local bodies to create secure and healthy intergenerational communities.

Professor Christine Stephens and postdoctoral fellow Dr Agnes Szabo are from Massey University’s School of Psychology and are members of the university’s Health and Ageing Research Team.

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