Older renters cutting food to cover costs - social worker

Elderly people are skimping on food and doctors' visits to pay for skyrocketing accommodation costs, a study has found.

A Victoria University study published today found poorer health in elderly New Zealanders living in rentals, compared with those living in houses they owned.

The study used data from a survey of more than 15,000 New Zealanders over 55 years old. They found women over 75, Māori and Pasifika were more likely to be renting, and these groups were more vulnerable.

People renting were more likely to live alone, have lower physical health and mental health, lower income, higher blood pressure, and more prone to obesity. They were more likely to experience serious health problems such as heart failure, a heart attack, stroke, chronic pain or asthma.

Among renters, those living in publicly provided rentals such as state housing or council housing had worse health indicators than those in private rentals.

One of the paper's authors, Kay Saville-Smith, said by 2020 about half of those turning 65 would be in rentals, compared to historical rates of home ownership at that age of 85 percent.

"New Zealand has had a tenure revolution, where we've moved from essentially a home ownership society to a rental society and that is affecting older people," Dr Saville-Smith said.

"One of the immediate implications is that if the health service recognises that an older person is renting and is more likely to be health vulnerable, then they can actually give attention to that, see where their health status is, see how we can support them."

Earlier research found that older people were more likely to live in poorer condition rentals.

There were also reports some elderly people's tenancies were ended if they fell ill, because landlords saw them as a problem, she said.

"Tenure insecurity then leads to all sorts of both mental, physical and financial stresses.

"So one of the things we're trying to do with this research is help health providers, but also landlords and service providers to think about how they can support older tenants better, given that older tenants are usually very good tenants for landlords."

Younger renters pushing out pensioners

Wellington Age Concern social worker Hanny Naus said older New Zealander's were reluctant to ask for improvements to rental homes that could help their health and safety for fear of being seen as a problem.

This meant they went without things like railings in bathrooms and outdoor steps, and lived without insulation, Ms Naus said.

"They are minimising every possible way that they could be moved out of their rental accommodation."

Many struggled to keep up with the soaring rents, so went to drastic lengths to cut other costs, including cutting out food and not going to the doctor, Ms Naus said.

"They will stay in one room with a one-bar heater through the winter time, rather than incur extra cost for electricity. And certainly if the accommodation has no insulation they will live without opening windows."

This type of situation endangered both their physical and mental health, and left them socially isolated.

People of other ages who had bigger incomes were pushing out older renters, Ms Naus said.

Grey Power president Mac Welch said central and local government needed to make available more social housing to the elderly.

"We know that a large section of the senior population is becoming impacted and there's more and more people coming into that demographic every day."

Grey Power had petitioned this government and the previous one about the issue and little was being done, Mr Welch said.

Otago University public health professor Philippa Howden-Chapman said the new research added to growing awareness about the issue of elderly renters, which should be a wake-up call for policy makers.

"If you're living in a rental housing and you're given 90-day notice, you're in dire straights because you've got fixed income, and the rents are going up really rapidly."

The study is part of a four-year research programme called Life When Renting, funded by the Ageing Well National Science Challenge.

Dr Saville-Smith said the health sector was responding and it was likely health and social assessments for elderly people would include questions about whether they lived in rental accommodation by the end of the year.

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