New way of living for the old

IF it’s true that we no longer buy a house for life, but for life stages, then a new development in elderly housing deserves serious attention.

It’s the brainchild of Louth County Council, who have designated themselves the ‘age friendly’ county. Opening this month, the development is the council’s response to housing for the elderly — a high-tech, 16-unit scheme that will allow older people, and those with disabilities, to live independently and with dignity.

Don’t look away now if you think this is all about nursing homes and sheltered housing — it isn’t. It’s about providing discrete, carefully designed, and future-proof accommodation that recognises, but circumvents, the shortcomings of age and illness.

The Great Northern Haven is a 16-unit apartment scheme that will save the Exchequer €800,000 a year, compared to institutional care. “Somebody who is now at age 70, and comes to live here for ten years, will save the state €500,000,” says Dundalk Town Council’s David Storey.

“Those with medical needs can also live here, because we can adapt the properties and meet their requirements within the development. We can handle most medical needs, except for some exceptions, like dementia,” he says.

“The key thing, with this scheme, however, is that you are not precluded from living here if you own your own house. We can look at a situation where we can buy a house off you, and you make a cash contribution towards living costs — we get the house and can then allocate it to ordinary applicants on the list. Or, you can sell your house yourself and make a cash contribution.”

This Dundalk pilot project is a change of emphasis in care of the elderly. Supported by a number of government agencies, and Atlantic Philanthropies, the houses were designed by architects, MCO Projects, with strong input from the technology and IT departments of Dundalk Institute of Technology, Dublin City University, and University of Ulster.

The two-bed apartment complex is the first of its kind in the country to use a smart-home system in a dedicated fashion.

Where this system is used to turn on heating and lighting in regular houses, here it not only detect falls and other physical changes within the household, but it monitors energy consumption by controlling heat and light in various rooms.

The aim is to make independent living safer, but also to minimise costs for its pensioner occupiers.

Clever, automatic fittings include the shutdown of internal lighting systems when the occupant is in bed, and, when motion sensors are activated, the lights automatically turn on again.

The technology has been developed and tested at centres of excellence and its application is geared specifically towards enhancing the quality of life and well-being of older people.

So, if you have an accident and fall, the house will sense this automatically and call a designated person, or neighbour.

Also, water and gas are shut down and the danger of fire or flood-damage is minimised.

Another strong advantage with the smart homes is that they offer not only peace of mind to elderly people living alone, but also to their families, and will allow independent living for longer periods in an ultra-safe environment.

It’s liberation in bricks and mortar, and the Louth management team deserves congratulations for rolling out the first of its kind in Ireland.

David Storey expects interest from other local authorities, when the apartments are up and running, and has already fielded calls from private investors.

According to Louth county manager, Conn Murray, who has driven the age-friendly approach, the Great Northern Haven is an example that can be followed throughout the country.

“As well as the great technologies used to ensure that those who will live in these homes, from April, can do so with peace of mind, they also have an excellent design from an energy-use perspective, so that they will stand the test of time and be affordable to heat and light,” he says.

“For too long, older people were consigned to institutional care, when their preference would have been to live in their own homes for so long as it was safe to do so. What is provided, here, offers an excellent model for allowing that to happen,” he says.

And Ireland is getting older, in line with a worldwide trend, but we are still a lot younger in population terms than our European counterparts.

This allows us time to plan for an ageing population, and designing the right kind of houses for us to live in is a solid step in the right direction.

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