Mandatory building standards would ensure senior housing needs are met

Our ageing population demands more accessible housing, writes Dr Di Winkler.

Our ageing population demands more accessible housing, writes Dr Di Winkler.

The final report from the royal commission into aged care will be released this week. This report will show that institutional housing for the elderly is not working and include a range of measures to address the neglect they have found.

The recent challenges experienced by the aged care sector during the COVID-19 pandemic also highlight the importance of enabling our seniors to remain in their own homes for as long as they want to.

Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute research shows that up to 80 per cent of Australians aged over 55 want to live at home and age in place. A national study conducted by the University of Melbourne found that 73 per cent of people with a mobility restriction live in housing that does not meet their needs.

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Dr Di Winkler

Australia’s building ministers will be meeting in early April to decide on the potential inclusion of minimum accessibility standards in the 2022 National Construction Code (NCC). This is a unique opportunity to incorporate minimum accessibility standards in all new homes, such as a step-free entrance and wider doorways.

The current voluntary guidelines were adopted by the building sector over a decade ago have failed to meet the unmet demand for accessible housing. Building ministers will decide between the current voluntary guidelines and the incorporation of mandatory accessible design features in new homes through the NCC.

A recent open letter to the country’s building ministers called for change, arguing that only mandatory standards will ensure Australia’s housing will meet the needs of our ageing population.

Signatories to the letter were members of the Building Better Homes Campaign, a growing coalition of organisations representing seniors, people with disabilities, and the health and housing sectors. The Campaign is led by the Summer Foundation and includes over 50 organisations such as the Council on the Ageing, National Seniors Australia, National Disability Services, People with Disability Australia, and Medibank Private.

The Campaign includes a petition to building ministers, which has already exceeded 10,000 signatures. Notable Australians have also joined the movement including former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes, seniors advocate Kathryn Greiner, 2011 Australian of the Year Simon McKeon, Paralympian Kurt Fearnley, author Jackie French, and former Victorian politician Mary Wooldrige.

As Greiner points out, mandatory standards would “empower all Australians to live in an inclusive community … no matter their mobility.”

To better understand the needs of people with mobility impairments, the Summer Foundation and La Trobe University are currently surveying seniors and people with disabilities. The survey asks people which accessible design features are a high priority when choosing a new home, or visiting friends and family.

These features include a step free path to the entrance of homes, safer showers, a toilet on the ground floor and the reinforcement of toilet and bathroom walls to make it easier to install grab rails later if required.

Many of these features are common-sense and should be included in new homes at the design stage, which is considerably cheaper than modifying existing dwellings.

While some of Australia’s most successful builders are already incorporating accessible features in their new builds, the lack of mandatory standards through the NCC means these features are included in an ad hoc manner rather than across all new homes in a standardised way.

Kathryn Greiner reminds us that the Australia we want is one where mobility restrictions should not determine where we live or where we can go. As Greiner asks, “Can you imagine not going to visit family and friends, simply because you can’t get in their door?”

Find out more about the Building Better Homes Campaign including the petition here.

Participate in the survey of people with mobility limitations here.

Dr Di Winkler is the CEO and founder of the Summer Foundation

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