As part of Positive Ageing Week, ThinkBusiness spoke with Michelle Moore, founder of Ava Housing, and she opened up about the issues facing elderly homeowners in Ireland. 

Today marks an important day in the calendar as Positive Ageing Week kicks off and will run until Friday October 4th.

Bank of Ireland is proud to be the headline sponsor for the fourth year of Age Action Ireland’s Positive Ageing Week. The aim of the week is to shine a light on all that is great about growing older in Ireland and to raise awareness of challenges this section of our society face.

This year, Age Action and Bank of Ireland are focusing on the theme ‘Ageing in Place’. This term is used to describe a person living in the residence of their choice in their own community, for as long as they are able, as they age. The benefits of ageing in one’s local community are vast, from promoting positive mental and physical health to keeping older people active for longer in the comfort of familiar surroundings.

“Some of these people raised their families in these homes and they shouldn’t be made feel bad for wanting to stay there”

In keeping with the theme, Bank of Ireland has also partnered with Ava Housing, an award winning and innovative not-for-profit housing scheme which helps older homeowners to reconfigure their family-sized homes, reimagining the layout of their ground floor and creating a new rental unit within the house on the first floor. The design solution allows for the homeowner to share their home with a renter, whilst still having a level of privacy and autonomy.

Ireland has an ageing population, with a very high incidence of home ownership. Over 160,000 older homeowners are living alone in family-sized houses, with many living in mature, well serviced, urban locations. For many of these homeowners, while their house is their greatest asset, it may also give rise to significant expense and in fact does not provide a source of income in retirement.

As these issues become more pronounced, older homeowners may feel pressure to move out of their homes either into residential facilities or to downsize into smaller accommodation. However, with Ireland experiencing a critical housing shortage, the availability of suitable options for downsizing is extremely limited and what is available is often located outside of their existing communities leading to isolation and loneliness.

“It took me to give up my job to wake up to that side of life”

After spending many years working in financial services, Michelle Moore’s decision to take time out led to the establishment of Ava Housing. She founded the organisation off the back of a conversation on the radio; “I started doing a bit of voluntary work, and the ESRI had just published a report called Housing and Ireland’s Older Population, and there was a suggestion that there should be incentives to get older people to move out of their houses. Some of these people raised their families in these homes and they shouldn’t be made feel bad for wanting to stay there. It really resonated with me and I just thought there must be another way to go about this without it negatively impacting the elderly home owner,” says Michelle.

“This got me thinking and it was at a time where I had a lot of time on my hands, so I decided to dig deeper and found that while it was completely different to anything I had done before, there were areas where I could apply the skills I developed to make it work. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but for years volunteering wasn’t something that was on my radar. It took me to give up my job to wake up to that side of life,” she added.

“With our idea, we want to promote interaction in the house which combats any loneliness, while also keeping some element of privacy”

Michelle admits the feedback she received in the early stages was somewhat mixed, with many believing the complexity around planning and regulation would be too difficult to overcome. “I probably went into it very naively, but it was probably good that I did. I quickly realised that I didn’t have the skillset to get this done so I partnered with Ciaran Ferry and Dermot Bannon who are very skilled architects with a very social conscience. This type of work must be done collaboratively, and you need a multi-discipline team. I think I was very impatient at the start because I was used to getting things done quickly in the corporate world, but it’s a whole other world when it comes to not-for-profit.”

After conducting research facilitated by DCU, Michelle and her team found that while house sharing was becoming more prominent, homeowners felt they had lost a certain degree of privacy. “Some people don’t like having someone sitting down watching the TV in the evening with the person they are living with. With our idea, we want to promote interaction in the house which combats any loneliness, while also keeping some element of privacy.”

Ava Housing are still at pilot stage, having just completed their first house in January, and more recently the Department of Housing have allocated a further five houses to be worked on, but Michelle is keen to stress that Ava Housing offers more than just a redesign of the house. “This isn’t just about the design, we are an end-to-end solution for the homeowner. We engage with the homeowner in two phases. The first is to support them to configure the house, and the second part is about the rental. We introduce three potential lodgers and it’s the homeowners choice on who they decide to live with and we then act as the agent, which means they don’t have to chase the rent.”

“People who share their house can earn up to €14k each year, so there’s a big incentive to turn the home into an income generator for their retirement”

Aside from security and combating loneliness, this solution offers elderly homeowners a financial reward and allows them to maintain a modern home – something that is a massive issue for elderly homeowners in Ireland. “We see a lot of older people who might have inherited a family home and spent years living there on their own and wouldn’t have the funds to maintain the house, and as a result the house is falling into disrepair. Or if they are maintaining it, it might be that all their savings are going into this and the person doesn’t have much of a lifestyle. So many people in this situation are living off the state pension, which is €248 and it’s almost impossible to maintain a big home of that budget.

“There’s a financial benefit to this because it falls under the rent a room relief. People who share their house can earn up to €14k each year, so there’s a big incentive to turn the home into an income generator for their retirement.”

Looking to the future, Michelle says the idea is “scalable” that will require the help of the Irish government, says that due to the competition for funding, she is open to working with companies that are willing to accommodate their staff. “We’re more than happy to sit down and have those conversations with organisations. We’re currently focusing on South Dublin County Council and Dublin City Council at the moment, but we aim to expand to urban areas right across Ireland. We don’t want this to be just about the older homeowner, we want to try help reinvigorate housing estates and communities that might be in decline due to the aging population.

Written by Stephen Larkin

Photo: Naoise Culhane

Published: 30 September, 2019

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