Stay put or move? Older people and the housing market

The population of Sweden is becoming older. If suitable housing is to be available in the future for everyone, towns must ensure an adequate supply of good housing in which we can grow older. Marianne Abramsson has investigated how and why older people move. 

Tema Staden elderly peopleImage: iStock

“The number of older people is increasing. We have statistics about the demographics of the population: in Sweden we have known for a long time what the population structure will look like,” says Marianne Abramsson. 

She has mapped, together with her colleagues, patterns of migration of older people. The situation for these people in society has changed during the past few decades, and it has become apparent that the percentage of older people who move is increasing. Today, they are prepared to change their housing situation, and this is related to an increased length of life. Marianne Abramsson has included people who are 55 years and older in her surveys. “Older people” are usually defined as those older than 65, but Marianne Abramsson points out that a lot happens during the years between 55 and 65, probably associated with the children in the family moving out. 

“A change has taken place, in that people live as long as they do now. Older people today may move not only once but twice after they retire. Good housing for the elderly is necessary, and ‘good’ in this context means accessible housing in which people can grow older,” says Marianne Abramsson.

The elderly population of towns is increasing

Statistics Sweden predicted in 2015 that the average length of life would increase by an average of 1.1 years every ten years for women, and 1.4 years every ten years for men, until 2060. The age structure of the population will change in the coming decades, and the number of people in older age groups will increase. It has been estimated that in 2060 there will be 1.3 million more people in the age group 65-99 than today.

The increased average length of life places demands on the housing market with respect to accessible housing for older people, and the availability of different types of housing.

“What we see today is first a ‘lifestyle move’, followed by a further move for health reasons. Older people in this case need more help to cope with everyday life,” says Marianne Abramsson. 

However, most of the elderly today continue to live where they have lived. People born in the 1930s and 1940s remain in the economically advantageous housing they acquired during the 1960s. At the time, they were facing a difficult housing market, with few choices available to them, Marianne Abramsson reminds us. Marianne Abramsson 2017Marianne Abramsson is docent in human geography and senior lecturer in the Division Ageing and Social Change (ASC), which is part of the Department of Social and Welfare Studies (ISV). Image: Susanna Lönnqvist

A development in society that has taken place in parallel with the development towards a longer length of life is a decrease in the amount of residential care, housing for the elderly, that is available. Older people remain in their own housing significantly longer than has been the case, and remain when affected by ill-health and disability that requires help and care. “The increase in length of life has brought with it poorer health: we live longer and the health of the population in general has become better, but we suffer from ill-health later in life,” Marianne Abramsson explains. “Now, it is the people who require round-the-clock care and those with cognitive disabilities who live in special housing for the elderly.” 

“Older people in these categories receive both homemaker services and home care services, and municipalities can use quite large amounts of resources for these before the break-even point is reached when it becomes cheaper to offer the elderly person a place in residential care. This is something that municipalities calculate when making such a decision,” says Marianne Abramsson. 

Greater responsibility for one’s own housing

Other, new forms of residence for older people have arisen to replace the type of housing that previously was offered by homes for the aged and subsidised residential facilities. These have names such as “senior housing”, “55+ housing” and “sheltered housing”. These forms incorporate the idea of some form of community, and common areas are often included as part of the architecture. These types of housing can create the conditions required to allow people to remain independent longer. 

“Aging in place” is a principle that municipalities have applied for many years. The principle of remaining in one’s own accommodation with advancing age is based on the experience of many during the 1940s and 1950s, who were more or less compelled to move from their homes and social networks, often to substandard housing. The pendulum has now swung back:  some of the older people interviewed by Marianne Abramsson stated that they felt under pressure to remain where they were, despite a desire of many older people today to live with others in a social setting. 

“What has happened is that the responsibility for housing has been placed to an increasing degree onto the individual, and there is nothing to suggest that this trend will change in the future,” says Marianne Abramsson.

Awareness of how older people act in the housing market

There arises a dilemma in that municipalities are not building sufficient housing, and the supply of housing suitable for the elderly is thus controlled by market forces. The only types of housing that municipalities are under an obligation to build are sheltered housing and housing covered by the Act concerning Support and Service for Persons with Certain Functional Impairments (LSS). Furthermore, extensive subsidies for building apartments suitable for older people are not available. 

“The municipalities should consider their long-term needs and find a way to guarantee a long-term perspective for senior housing and sheltered housing,” says Marianne Abramsson. 

Marianne Abramsson points out that this will require guarantees that extend over a longer period. One solution is to enter into contracts that extend longer than one term of government, which means that a subsequent constellation of political power cannot reverse decisions made. The current trend is the opposite: decisions relating to the care of the elderly are taken based on extremely short-term perspectives, as short as a budget period. Marianne Abramsson emphasises the need that all those involved with elderly care in a municipality talk to each other, across professional boundaries.

“What is needed is an awareness of how older people act in the housing market, and how changes in life situation lead to changes in needs. Another form of housing will be needed, and if the municipality cannot itself satisfy this need, it must ensure that other actors do so. The most important point is that housing must be available for older people to move to,” Marianne Abramsson concludes. 

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