Our elderly deserve safe and functional homes

Given the scale, complexity and sheer cost of recent reforms to disability services and aged care, we need to keep a close eye on whether the changes are working. For the most part, they seem to be. However, there is one big gap.

As people age and develop mobility and similar problems, it is essential for their homes to be safe and functional.

But most homes – either houses or apartments – do not meet this requirement. How many times have I seen or heard of new apartments, targeted at the seniors market, which are difficult and sometimes dangerous to access or live in.

This significant shortcoming could undermine the potential success of both the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Aged Care programs.

Both of these ambitious schemes have attracted a lot of community support, for many good reasons. An important reason for me as the Commissioner for aged discrimination and disability discrimination is the objective that most people will be able to stay in their own homes all their lives.

The provision of aged care services to the home, available now to all who qualify, is a big winner with the community in this regard. It allows much higher levels of personal choice, dignity, and maintenance of family and social connections than residential alternatives.

But all these benefits can be undone by something as simple as steep steps into or within a home. Or slippery bathroom and kitchen floors, doorways too narrow for a wheelchair or even a walker, cupboards out of reach, taps impossible for arthritic hands.

A person in their 80s with arthritis, or hip or knee weaknesses, but otherwise healthy and active could find that they simply cannot continue to function in their home because of such obstacles. How distressing and wasteful to have to leave one’s home and neighbourhood and move into aged care, a move that can be costly and disruptive, and damaging to their social networks.

The remedies are straightforward. Accessible entries, ramps instead of stairs, grab rails, safe flooring, wider doorways and practical placing of cupboards and other functionally designed features. These basics of home accessibility have been endorsed by state and federal governments, and by the building industry.

SIMPLE ADDITIONS: Basics of home accessibility have been endorsed by state and federal governments, and by the building industry.

But builders are required only to follow a voluntary code. It is not happening. The voluntary approach is failing our older citizens. The additional cost of constructing new dwellings using the well-established principles of universal design is not great, but builders will not incur it without regulation or other incentive.

Retrofitting a home to add accessibility features is of course usually possible, but much more costly that building for accessibly in the first place. It is time to replace the voluntary code with regulation. This could be done now, as state and federal governments, COAG, review the 2010-2020 national disability strategy.

Australia taxpayers are spending many billions to support ageing people and individuals with disability to live fuller and better lives at all stages. Australia’s fastest growing age cohort is the over 65s and this will continue for the foreseeable future. As well as well-funded services to support our longer lives, we need to be supported by our living environments.This will help ensure that we can live securely and happily in our own homes all our lives.

Susan Ryan is Australia’s Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner

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