Taking time off work with her first child, young mum Kate Kirsten felt increasingly anxious about the prospect of leaving her tiny daughter in childcare when it was time to return to her office.
She confided her fears one day on the phone to her dad.
“Well, I do miss you,” he said. “And I’m lonely living here on my own. Why don’t I just move in with you, and give you a helping hand?”
The pair talked it over and decided to give it a try. Twelve years on, they can’t imagine ever living apart again.
Her dad, Len Parsons, helped her bring up her two children, Sienna, now 12, and Will, 11. He loves living with his family and his grandkids absolutely adore him.
“It’s worked out so well for us,” says Kate, 46, who lives with the children in a house in Leichhardt, in Sydney’s inner west, which has a studio in the backyard where Len, 87, sleeps and retreats to when he wants a quiet refuge.
“We all genuinely like each other and we’re great housemates.”
“Dad loves having so much time with his grandchildren, and they love his sense of humour and that he’s around so much.”
“In addition, it’s much more economical living together rather than him going to a retirement home and me paying for childcare. And we all get on well, and treat each other with patience and respect.”
Social researchers say that, with slower population growth and the drop in migration, our society is ageing rapidly, with older Australians making up a growing proportion of the total population.
With that change, we need to look at fresh ways of housing more mature people and keeping them as a valued, and integral, part of the greater community.
Latest studies from the University of NSW’s City Futures Research Centre shows more and more of us are taking that challenge into our own hands, with one in five Australians – just like Kate and Len and the kids – now living in a multi-generational household.
Another project from Corelogic and Archistar found that there are 583,440 properties in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane that have room enough to build an additional self-contained unit of at least 60 square metres.
“Different generations of the same family living together is something that’s traditionally been strong in other cultures overseas, but less common here,” says Craig Christensen, principal at the award-winning urban planning and design practice Hatch RobertsDay.
“But, really, it should be an option for all of us.”
“We need to build bigger apartments with separate space for grandparents, or houses with a studio or granny flat where they can have their own private space. I think this is going to be a growing trend.”
Another change Craig predicts is the growth of mixed-use developments, with aged-care living integrated into the whole, either with separate blocks, or dedicated floors for older residents in regular buildings.
His practice worked with Sekisui House Australia to design the new Ripley Town Centre south-west of Brisbane to include senior living and aged care.
In Sydney, the Crown Group is creating the mixed-use complex Eastlakes, in the city’s south, to include apartments side-by-side with 80 stores, cafes and restaurants as well as an 1800-square-metre emergency and medical centre that’s likely to appeal particularly to an older demographic.
In addition, some of the apartments are likely to be specially planned with bigger bathrooms, handrails, non-slip tiles and wider spaces throughout to accommodate wheelchairs.
“We’re seeing a lot of multi-generational families moving into our Green Square and Waterfall developments because it means they can live close to all the facilities they need,” says Crown CEO Iwan Sunito.
“Some like to live together as it’s part of their culture, or kids might be trying to save money after losing their jobs during COVID-19, while other family members might have separate apartments on the same floor or in other buildings in the same complex. But I also think that COVID made us all value our closeness to family more. And at Eastlakes, with that medical centre and being so close to the Prince of Wales Hospital, it’s going to be ideal for older members of the family.”
Another rapidly emerging trend is to have aged living above shopping centres, public transport hubs, restaurants or cafes.
In Sydney’s eastern suburbs, developer Lendlease bought, and completely refurbished, a vertical village of independent living units, the Ardency Trebartha, which now sits above one of Elizabeth Bay’s busiest, and most fashionable, cafes, Shuk.
“I’m a regular, and go down to get coffee and food and meet my grandchildren there,” says resident Zandra Stanton, 82, who’s also chair of the residents’ committee.
“Some people get their meals delivered up to them too from the cafe, which is nice.”
“We have one 98-year-old man in the building who goes down every morning for coffee and cake. I think getting together with other people there, and having a social life in the building, keeps a lot of people alive!”
Lendlease managing director retirement living Nathan Cockerill says it’s a great way of avoiding the loneliness and isolation that older Australians often feel.
“They want to stay local and connected to their community, loved ones and require different services and amenities to complement their lifestyle,” he says.
“Ardency Trebartha is a great example of what we’re planning for the future – it’s a multi-storey apartment building that’s located in the inner city with harbour views. It has a popular cafe on the ground floor, and within the building, there’s a hair and beauty salon, bar and lounge, library and cinema. The building is integrated with the surrounding area rather than being a closed community so that residents can stay connected.”
One of the main difficulties at the moment for older Australians is that they simply don’t have enough housing options, believes Professor Bruce Judd of the University of NSW, who’s currently collaborating with Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, on research on population ageing and housing issues.
“A lot of people really want to live in single-level houses with two to three bedrooms, no stairs and a small courtyard,” he says. “But while those sorts of villas were built in the 1960s and 1970s in places like Rockdale and Kogarah, they’re not really available now.
“We talk about downsizers moving into smaller houses, but they still need space. They want bedrooms for their grandkids to come and stay and to use for hobbies, or an office, or for sewing or exercise. In one project, we found only nine per cent of over-55s had actually downsized to a smaller number of bedrooms.”
Many of them are nervous about apartment living, too, Judd believes, as they’re worried about noise from their neighbours next door, below and above, have an aversion to dealing with the owners’ corporation and, since they’re usually on fixed incomes, don’t like the possibility of strata levies increasing.
“But some builders are now building three-generation homes with private areas so grandparents can have their own space, and there are more dual-key apartments [apartments that can be divided into two] coming onto the market.”
Dr Debbie Faulkner, director of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute at the Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise at the University of South Australia, is carefully watching the development of more innovative models of housing for older people. These range from special units of public housing, to co-operative housing, to friends getting together, buying land and building housing for them all.
“But we need to make it easier for these models in terms of the planning and financial systems,” she says. “It can be very onerous in the current situation.”
Even if 20 per cent of new houses in Australia included features like grab-rails and step-free entrances, it would allow many more older people to age in their own homes, says Craig Christensen.
“Building more liveable housing could reduce the need for care and could promote greater independence in the older age group,” he says.
Making society generally more age-friendly can also do a lot to help. The growth of community gardens often offers older people the chance to participate in a pastime they may have grown up with.
Peter Ives, secretary of the Addison Road Community Garden in Marrickville, and himself in his 70s, says it can prove a great way to mix.
“Some older people may attend for exercise and to socialise and for amusement,” he says. “Others might come to grow the food they like to eat, as well as for the company.”
Having company is, indeed, one of the most important requirements of healthy ageing. Isolation, loneliness and depression are the real killers.
Happily, Len Parsons, surrounded by the love of his family, considers himself in an ideal position. So many of his neighbours know him too, from his volunteering at the local playgroup and church.
“They all say we’re so lucky to have him with us,” says Kate Kirsten, the editor of magazine Take 5. “And we think so too.”
Sienna agrees. “It’s good having family around all the time,” she says. “I never have to remember to carry keys on me!”
Will grins. “And he tells good jokes,” he says. “He’s very funny – even though he barracks for the wrong footy team …”