Housing for older people in Barbados

Barbados has an ageing population but the range of housing options open to older people of all income groups is very limited.

The island has a population structure that is more typical of a developed economy than most of its Caribbean neighbours.  This is not surprising given the country’s relative level of development. As well as people living longer, the older section of the population has grown because of returning nationals coming back to Barbados after spending their working lives abroad.

Census data shows that the number of people aged 65 and over increased from 30,898 in 1990 to 35,969 in 2010, a 16.4% increase over twenty years.  During the same period the total population of the island increased by only 6.65% from 260,491 to 277,821.  In relative terms, the proportion of the total population aged 65 and over increased from 11.86% to 12.95% over the twenty year period.

The ageing population structure is more pronounced when the very old age group is examined.  Between 1990 and 2010 the number of people aged 80 and over rose from 7,602 to 10,201, a 34% increase and this age group increased as a proportion of the total population from 2.92% to 3.67%.

People see this increased longevity as a mark of progress and take pride in the regular press reports of the Governor General delivering birthday greetings to the latest centenarian.  However, this pride has not resulted in the development of a range of housing options geared to the varying needs of different older people.

For most middle income people the only specialist option open is nursing home care.  Private nursing homes in Barbados tend to be converted domestic properties which are poorly adapted with inadequate circulation arrangements and limited facilities.  The physical limitations of premises are likely to make the delivery of high quality care more difficult.  The scope for activity and stimulus may be limited and such arrangements are unlikely to assist rehabilitation.  There is also a recognized need for specialist dementia care.

For people on lower incomes the options are also limited.  The public sector has traditionally provided for this part of the population through the geriatric hospital.  Demand for its services generally exceed capacity.

These are not housing options.  There is a need for a range of housing suited to the needs of older people who do not actually require nursing care.  At present many people are faced with the limited choice of either struggling on in an isolated and often lonely way in a home that no longer matches their needs or moving into nursing home accommodation that they do not need and which will take away their independence and possibly reduce their life skills.

A wider housing choice would include:-

• Assisted living housing for people who need some support to help them look after themselves but do not need nursing care

• Independent living housing for people fully capable of looking after themselves but who need a smaller home and would benefit from more social interaction and increased security

• Down-sizing opportunities in housing developments catering for a range of age groups

• Services to assist people remaining in their existing home such as warden call systems, handy person services, etc

In present economic circumstances it is unrealistic to expect direct investment from the public sector but Government can set the vision for more appropriate housing solutions.  Government can also work with the private sector and voluntary agencies to help to deliver projects.

The private sector does not have a track record of providing specialist housing for older people in Barbados.  There was an attempt at developing an American-style continuing care retirement community (CCRC) but this stalled before the recession.  The site was remote from facilities and geared to an overseas market that was nervous about moving so far for retirement.  The private sector needs to look at the needs and opportunities in the domestic market.  New developments for older people should be located close to relevant facilities and in existing communities.

Barbados is still suffering from the economic downturn but there is a clear need for housing solutions matched to the needs of an ageing population.  There are a lot of older people still living in homes that are too big for them.  Older people have money locked up in such property and releasing that money could fund their move to more appropriate housing and release a family-sized home for people who need it.  This could also help reduce some of the pressure to take agricultural land out of production for housing development.  This would be a “win/win/win” for the island!

Kim Penfold
June 2014