Can Elderly People with Large Homes Help Ease Homelessness?

When their kids have moved out, some older people end up living in big homes with empty rooms.

What if some of Dublin’s homeless families could move in – either after the older person moved to a smaller place, or even with the older person, as housemates?

Earlier this month, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) published a report entitled “Housing and Ireland’s Older Population”.

The country’s housing shortage could be eased by encouraging older people to move if they are living in a home that exceeds their need, argued the think-tankers.

The report looked at 8,000 individuals aged over 50 and found that few older people move house. Perhaps, it suggested, there is scope to ease the housing crisis by freeing up larger houses, particularly in urban areas.

Another way to look at this is from social enterprise Elderhomeshare‘s perspective: it tries to match people who need homes with older people who want someone around the house for security, company and to do odd jobs.

How It Would Help Dublin

There are 769 families in emergency accommodation around Dublin, according to city council figures from January. Older people downsizing their homes could help house these families.

And it’s not a matter of convincing older people to move out of their homes and into something smaller, because many already want to go.

There are 107 people on the council’s housing list looking to downsize, according to figures released by Dublin City Council earlier this month.

These applicants are likely older people who were given larger council homes when they had children living with them, says independent councillor Mannix Flynn, who requested the housing list figures.

The council used to run a scheme to help older people downsize. It would buy their homes and, in return, give them lifelong tenancies in senior-citizen accommodation, as well as some money.

But the council began to run out of senior-citizen accommodation, and so it stopped adding names to the list.

There were more than 800 on the list to downsize before the council stopped taking new applications, said the head of the council’s Housing Strategic Policy Committee, Sinn Féin councillor Daithí Doolan.

Back to Building

The solution, you would think is simple. Many on the housing list are looking for larger homes. Hundreds are looking for smaller homes.

So help people who don’t need big places move into smaller ones by building more senior-citizen accommodation, and units with fewer bedrooms. And that will free up the big homes for those who desperately need them.

Councillors across the board agree that this should be a priority. Flynn says the current situation makes no sense.

“You have a lot of families out there with young children who want to be together in appropriate accommodation. Here’s an ideal solution,” he says. “It’s not only a priority for those who are on the list and want to downsize, but also because they should be making provisions for elderly into the future.”

It’s the future he’s worried about too. There are no provisions being put in place to prepare for a growth in Dublin’s elderly population.

Labour councillor Dermot Lacey says the hundred people on the council list looking to downsize “could make an impact”.

But he stresses that senior-citizen complexes should be available in each community, so that people don’t have to choose between moving to smaller places and staying in their neighbourhoods.

The downsizing queue would grow, he thinks, if older people knew they would be able to stay in their local communities.

Far from Ideal

Right now, the shortage of smaller homes for elderly Dubliners is pushing people into nursing homes when they could live more independently, said Justin Moran, head of advocacy and communications at Age Action Ireland.

That inability to downsize or adapt houses to changing needs played into a 44 percent increase in the number of people with low levels of need moving into nursing homes in recent years, according to data from the HSE acquired by Age Action.

“Older people want to stay living at home for as long as possible. Sometimes they may need nursing home facilities, but there’s very little in between,” he says.

He had some issues with the suggestion in ESRI’s report that older people be incentivised to downsize. Among them, the failure to mention the lack of sheltered housing in Ireland.

“Downsize where?” he asks. “Where are they supposed to go?”

What’s the Hold-up?

Housing for the elderly is a key priority, the Department of Health says. Or, at least, it did in 2013 when it published a National Positive Ageing Strategy, which highlighted housing for the elderly as a major focus.

But despite councillors, charities, ESRI and the government all chiming that this is important, not that much is happening. As with other housing, there’s a lack of supply and little action to help construction start again.

“There isn’t even an implementation plan for that strategy, let alone, the sustained delivery of the kind of housing options we need for older people,” says Moran.

To be fair, there’s been some progress. At Chapelizod Hill Road in Ballyfermot, 70 senior-citizen apartments are in the works, and expected to open sometime next year. There are 18 council tenants in this area looking to downsize, so that should free up some homes for families.

More recently, the Department of Environment approved 60 units of senior-citizen accommodation at Cornamona on the Kylemore Road in Ballyfermot.

But Doolan points out that the department wouldn’t fund the whole development of 75 units that the council proposed to build. It agreed to fund just 60 units, so plans with these changes were resubmitted.

“That’s how many we needed,” says Doolan. “When we do find sites, they simply won’t provide us with adequate funding.”

Dublin City Council needs funds, but is being starved of money by the government, said Doolan. “If we had the money, of course we would prioritise senior citizens. We’re simply not given the money,” he says.

Seniors and Singles

For years, Focus Ireland has pointed out that most social housing is built for families, and has called for more small units for single people and couples without children. (Before the recent housing crisis, most homeless people were single.)

“We think that social housing should be creating much more mixed communities and much more smaller units and that would obviously give more leeway for people who want to downsize,” says Mike Allen, director of advocacy at Focus Ireland.

By building just family homes, the council has excluded these two groups from social housing in the city.

In the draft Dublin City Development Plan for 2016-22, the city’s biggest demand for housing is for one-bedroom units for single people and seniors, said Sinn Féin’s Doolan.

Data from last July, which features in the draft plan, shows that more than half of all households eligible for social housing require a one-bedroom unit. A third require a home with two bedrooms.

Though Allen condemns the English approach of a “bedroom tax” to encourage people to downsize, he says that anyone who wants to move into a smaller home should be helped along, and barriers should be removed.

Other Ideas

There is another way to think about making use of all the empty space in big homes. Instead of moving one person out, the council could move more people in.

Last August, Saoirse Sheridan was told she had to leave her rented accommodation. It got her thinking, and she set up Elderhomeshare, a social enterprise.

Senior citizen homeowners are paired with vetted tenants who pay a fair rent, provide security and do odd jobs around the house.

Quiet and tidy, Sheridan knew she’d be perfect to live with an older person. “I started to dream up this idea, because I grew up with my own granny in the house and I really valued that relationship,” she says.

So far, the response has been a bit one-sided. There are plenty of calls from tenants, but it’s been tricky to find older homeowners who want to get involved.

They can be nervy about the idea, she says, and they are harder to reach with online marketing than the younger, social-media generation.

So far she’s had a couple of success stories. She is proud of pairing a 91-year-old woman who was looking for security and company with an artist who had just been evicted from her studio, where she was sleeping.

Things are going well for Sheridan as well. Nothing is ever perfect, she says, but it’s like having a flatmate, having a roomie to chat with after dinner.

“She was just telling me this really amazing story about how her mum was on Talbot Street as a girl during the 1916 Rising,” she says.

At the moment, Elderhomeshare isn’t an option for the 107 council tenants on the list to downsize their homes. The council has rules against renting out a room in a council house.

But Sheridan believes there could be scope for change. She has had inquiries from council tenants.

“I’ve been down to . . . council houses and there was one person there. They had the extra bedroom and then people like you or me are squashed out of the market place and can’t find anywhere to live,” she says.

Moran of Age Action believes it’s something Dublin City Council could look to change.

“What we need are imaginative responses to the housing crisis and, particularly for older people, we need those kinds of new ideas,” he says. “Elderhomeshare wouldn’t suit every older person, but it’s an effort to deal with the problem and it would suit some.”

Doolan of Sinn Féin agrees. For as long as downsizing isn’t an option, a pairing-up solution could be considered: “All options should be on the table.”


Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

Log in to write a response.

at 30 March 2016 at 19:00

Moving older people to sheltered accommodation in their own local areas makes sense but if there isn’t money for it then perhaps the councillor a could raise the LPT. They lowered it by 15% last year I think…..

I’m becoming grumpy in my old age ; )

Understand your city

We do in-depth, original reporting about the issues that shape Dublin. We're not funded by advertisers. We're funded by readers like you.

You can read 3 more free articles this month. If you’re a subscriber, log in.

The work we do isn't possible without our subscribers. We're a reader-funded cooperative. We are not funded or influenced by advertising. For as little as the price of a pint every month, you can support local journalism in your city.