Co-leaders of Massey University's 'Independence, Contributions and Connections' longitudinal study on ageing in New Zealand

In just 15 years' time, 22 per cent of New Zealanders will be over the age of 65. With nearly a quarter of our population as senior citizens, how retired and ageing Kiwis live is a key planning issue.

The current government policy of "ageing-in-place" encourages people to remain in their homes and communities, but our existing infrastructure has not been designed for an older population. In practical terms, this can mean encouraging older people to remain in socially isolating situations.

For those who can afford it, constructed communities like retirement villages can provide a more socially supportive environment, but they can also segregate older people from the rest of the community. A focus on building more affordable retirement villages, which need large areas of land, could actually create a relatively large ghettoed population.

What we need are ways for people to "age in place" within integrated communities - housing situations and neighbourhoods that enable older people to participate in, and engage with, the whole of society. The development of appropriate housing will be a critical aspect of our ability to provide community support for the very old.

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Traditional home ownership models may not work into the 21st century. The baby boomers have a high rate of home ownership, but home ownership is on the decline and not all older people can own a house. Staying in unsuitably large homes can also lead to loneliness, which is a major cause of poor health in older people.

In the latest phase of Massey University's longitudinal study on ageing, nearly half the baby boomers surveyed said they could see themselves moving from their current house in the future. This is reinforced by Statistics New Zealand figures, which show the number of one-person households has been growing steadily. Based on current indications, 80 per cent of the growth in one-person households will occur among those over 55, with the number of women aged over 65 living alone projected to increase from 100,000 in 2001 to 150,000 in 2021.

But new housing options are already emerging. Baby boomers are returning to flatting, often as a hedge against age-related physical restrictions and loneliness.

Because of the difficulties in setting up living arrangements in later life, organisations in the United States are developing systems to support shared living arrangements. The Golden Girls Network hosts a database that members can use to find compatible housemates, while the National Shared Housing Resource Center offers regional information about supported home-sharing options across the country.

There have been some small-scale developments in New Zealand too. Earlier this year the Bays Community Housing Trust opened a five-bedroom house for single women over 65 who do not own their own property and have limited assets. The aim is to provide affordable housing for women and combat loneliness - the trust is currently developing a similar house for men.

Purpose-built shared housing is also becoming popular in the US and Europe. These arrangements combine communal living areas with private rooms. In New Zealand, the Abbeyfield housing model is a forerunner of this kind of arrangement. These houses are organised by volunteer societies and the house is staffed by a housekeeper who cooks the main meals. There is a communal lounge, dining room, kitchen and laundry and sometimes a guest room.

The Intergenerational Living Society, supported by Age Concern in New Zealand, plans to include all generations in this kind of model. In purpose-built community housing, modelled on many examples in Germany and other parts of Europe, groups of people of all different ages will live together in an apartment complex, terraced houses or individual houses.

Each individual or family has their own apartment or house, complemented by community rooms. Residents provide mutual support, such as help with driving, shopping, paperwork, childcare, and support in illness and emergencies.

The Humanitas Apartments for Life for older people in the Netherlands are organised on similar principles. Residents are encouraged to live as they have always chosen, including engaging with their extended family. The apartments include restaurants, shops and other services, and invite the wider community to participate in the social life of the community.

How older people are able to live and participate in society is important for their wellbeing, and that of society. The 11th Science Challenge recently announced by the Government is based on "building better, homes, towns and cities". This is an important opportunity for the housing industry, researchers, and policymakers to pool their expertise to develop workable solutions for demographic change.

Chris Stephens, Professor at Massey University
Fiona Alpass, Professor at Massey University