Shared living for the over-70s

17:00, Apr 26 2013
shares living
SHARED LIVING: Beverly Thomas will manage the new shared flat for single over 70s people on Auckland's North Shore.

You know the drill. Your favourite pants are missing, the shower is cold and there's a funny smell wafting from the fridge.

A former flatmate of mine, who shall remain nameless, used to pride himself on modelling a pair of "lucky" orange undies before going out on the town.

For many people, ditching the flatmates for a place of their own is a welcome coming-of-age moment.

But what happens at the other end of life, if the kids have gone, the spouse has died and the bills are mounting up?

A proportion of retirees are taking their chances and moving back in with the great unwashed.

Trouble is, most flats are not designed for over-60s.

Trade Me has a smattering of ads from older homeowners seeking people to house-share. But shared rentals are few and far between.

Much council housing for seniors has been sold to private owners and Housing NZ's priority tends to be families, says Judith Davey, a research associate at the Institute for Government and Policy Studies at Victoria University.

Recently, old-age flatting has acquired a faintly dodgy reputation - blame the Westpac ad featuring mature actors bickering over milk and bedroom drum practice. Like any self-respecting bank, Westpac would rather you saved a deposit and got yourself a home loan. But with home ownership decreasing, not everyone will own a house by pension age.

Enter a new shared flat for single over-70s.

At Selwyn House at Auckland's Birkenhead housemates will share cooking and chores with a helper who calls by once a day. The helper will stock the pantry, cook one meal a day and generally help co-ordinate things. The rest is up to the inhabitants.

The $1.1m, 11-bedroom house has shared living, laundry and dining rooms and is the brainchild of the Selwyn Foundation, a Christian charitable trust, which runs dozens of day facilities for older, lonely people. The land was gifted to the foundation by a woman who'd lived in one its villages.

"Our core constitution is to help vulnerable and in-need older people and we saw this as a way to meet that," says chief executive Garry Smith. If it works, the Foundation wants to build more houses elsewhere in the country.

Suitable flatmates will be over 70, living alone and comfortable with communal living, says Smith. Loners need not apply.

When it all gets too much, there is enough space to make a cup of tea and sit down in your bedroom, which comes complete with a private ensuite, mini fridge and balcony.

The ad states flatmates must be of "good character". There is no stated policy on orange underwear.

This model of living may work well for independent people who want a bit of company, says Davey. She says New Zealand badly needs more housing options for a diverse crop of older people, many of them heading towards retirement without houses.

Davey's recent work in Canterbury led her to older people who lost their homes as a result of the quakes and couldn't afford to re-house themselves.

"Once you get over 80 or so you're probably not going to want to take out a mortgage, [although] I did meet people of that age who had taken on mortgages," she says.

"If you're looking to the future where you might have more people who need to rent, and if you going to try to keep people as independent as possible, which is a good idea, you've got to design housing which makes it possible."

"Residential care and some retirement villages are responding to this. There are fewer rest homes where old people just sit around a room."

Smith sees the new Selwyn House as a pilot for addressing an emerging housing crisis.

The house is based on the Abbeyfield concept - a model of volunteer-managed affordable housing for older people first brought to New Zealand from England by a Nelson GP.

Traditionally the houses had live-in housekeepers, though cost-cutting means not all of them do now. New Zealand has several local Abbeyfield Societies operating twelve houses for more than 100 residents. All the houses have waiting lists. If Abbeyfield had the money it would build another six, it says.

Even more than Abbeyfield, Selwyn House is pitched at well people. There is no live-in help. No care services will be available. Medic alarms are at the flatmates' expense. Smith interjects politely when he mishears me and thinks I am calling the inhabitants "patients." This is no rest home.

Yet New Zealand is still feeling its way here. Davey points out we don't yet have the language to describe these new types of housing - what to call the on-site helper, for example. Warden - the UK term - makes it sound as though the flatmates are in jail.

"It's not caretaker or housekeeper. It's really the sort of thing that your neighbour would do." One of the issues shared housing addresses is not everyone's neighbours do that.

Renting when old, research has repeatedly discovered, is one of the best predictors of spending retirement in poverty.

Add singledom to the mix and the risk is turbo-charged.

Selwyn House is not for the wealthy, who have retirement villages and other options to choose from.

"The person will have limited savings or very limited or no income other than superannuation," says Smith.

The foundation will subsidise living expenses by $75 a week per person, leaving residents to pay $395. The pension caps out at $322.08 in the hand for a single person sharing with others. This means the house will generally only work for people who are eligible for a taxpayer Accommodation Supplement, a means-tested benefit that pays 70 per cent of any housing costs that equal more than a quarter of NZ Super.

Smith says it should work out much cheaper than solo living. "You get meals, power, washing machines, everything is there for you so it would be cheaper than renting and running your own house."

The house at Roseberry Avenue officially opened in March. Now the hunt is on for flatmates. Ten people showed up to the first meeting the Selwyn Foundation held to explain the concept.

"There is a lot of interest but because it's new people obviously need to understand what it would be like. It is an important decision," says Smith.

Davey has already decided shared living wouldn't suit her.

"It would take a lot of adjustment to do that. Personally I wouldn't like the Abbeyfield approach but a lot of people do, and a lot of people don't like the retirement village idea but a lot of people are voting with their feet and going there," she says.

"The older you get the more diverse the experiences in the age group and the more diverse the choices you need to provide for everyone to get their desired situation."

"We all need these choices."