This report is based on interviews with older people who face significant challenges living in a place they all their own. It tells the stories of five individuals, their families, friends and communities, outlining how they have together met the challenges of supporting an older person in need.
The objectives of this research were to identify and explore a range of contexts in which older people age in a place of their own choosing, and to explore the nature and extent of the supports that older people receive both from informal and formal networks.
The research showed that the personal circumstances of the respondents in our study varied. Those with deteriorating health and/or limited finances were ingenious in the ways they compensated for this. Their ability to maintain a sense of value, independence or interdependence with family and to maintain the continuity of lifetime habits and preferences was of crucial importance to them.
It is by no means certain that future cohorts of older people will be predominantly homeowners. In the study, those who did own a home wanted to pass it on as an inheritance rather than to cash up to fund a lifestyle in old age. Moreover, not all older people are free to cash up: second marriages and blended families could limit the discretion of those who had lost a partner to sell or reorganise their assets. State-funded services and supports need to achieve a ‘best fit’ not only with the priorities and preferences of older people but also with the support available to them through their network of family and social relationships.
The study found that individuals fell along a spectrum from highly ‘family-focused’ to highly ‘community-focused’ network types. In family-focused networks, individuals were surrounded by family who provided a high level of daily personal, emotional and practical support. This support was reciprocated as, for example, older people continued to provide a high level of care for children, prepared meals and informally taught traditional crafts. The strengths of family-focused networks lay in the day-to-day support, advocacy and emotional warmth afforded to and by older persons. However, in supporting their elders so well and lovingly family members might bear a cost to themselves in terms of lost opportunity and they might themselves have little support.
In community-focused support networks, family was emotionally important, but most daily practical and social contacts were through friends and community contacts. In resilient networks, individuals had many social links or made good use of service providers who were able to refer them on to the health and welfare supports they needed. When individuals were less socially engaged, their links might be fewer and their informal resources and the take-up of formal services and supports might be limited.
The participants all required some degree of formal, state-funded support. Often this help was relatively unskilled, but its quality was crucial. To be acceptable and successful it had to meet the variety of preferences and priorities of older people rather than to be specified by rigid work contracts. At its best, formal help enhanced older people’s informal ‘natural’ networks which in many cases meant supporting the supporters.