Nowhere to go: tackling homelessness for older women
Dr Ayman Shenouda
A measure of our society
It was Ghandi who said ‘a nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members’. I’m not sure where that places us as a society particularly with the rise of homelessness in Australia. I strongly believe that governments are there for those who need them the most. Better still, if we had their focussed investment on preventive strategies it is certain that our country would be much better off.
On the issue of homelessness, we’ve seen very slow progress. This is despite a strong focus by state and territory governments. But this issue cut across departments and really requires a national focus in my view particularly to direct funds to improve healthcare management in primary care.
Housing and employment are two significant social determinants of health. We know homelessness can significantly impact on health outcomes. While social and economic factors lead to increased risk exposures. The patient-centred medical home can help meet the healthcare needs of the homeless population but this is reliant on a targeted program of funding.
Rising rates of homeless older women
One in three older women are living in income poverty in Australia.[i] Older single women are particularly at risk of becoming homeless with significant numbers experiencing rental stress. This is a public health crisis and requires careful policy planning overtime which is difficult to do in our short-term electoral cycles. Health status must remain a priority across government and not just health to provide for integrated services and supports.
Social workers have warned that Australia is facing a generational “tsunami” of this older demographic in coming years. This policy catastrophe is really not all that surprising when you consider the soft policy responses to those known drivers of poverty.
Women have less super due to disparity in earnings with years of lost income due to time out for family. There are cost impacts which include high-priced housing or losing a job as well as broader factors such as the rising divorce rate or death of a spouse. There is also less capacity to earn with the casualisation of the workforce which is also marred by ageist stereotypes.
Combating ageism in our society is something this country really needs to work on.
How is it even plausible that in the modern workplace you are considered old at 45 or 50? This seems to be the case yet Australia’s future prosperity is reliant on older workers. Perhaps this factor alone will make our policymakers more focussed on solutions in future.
Older women are locked out of the jobs market. Losing a job is said to be one of the most common triggers that can plunge older women into poverty.[ii] Ageism has very real mental and physical health consequences. There is less discussion on the impact that ageism has on health and we need to be louder here. These are two clear areas which require more policy development.
My older female patients often describe feeling invisible and that’s always heartbreaking to hear. But it seems this invisibility may have also crept into the policy space. Like so many things, we know policy inaction will be more costly over time.
The UK in prioritising a Minister for Loneliness is perhaps a step in the right direction. Addressing issues of isolation will help build stronger, healthier older Australians and we really need that national policy setting.
We’ve been treating the symptoms and not the know causes for too long.
Securing long-term tenancy options for this vulnerable cohort has to be prioritised. The fact is that we have had enough warnings in order to evacuate safely from the impending tsunami. We need to address wealth inequality, and particularly gender and income disparity in later life. Addressing ageism and particularly employment-based age discrimination too.
It is about helping women before they reach crisis point. More integration across the health and homelessness support systems would help to identify earlier those at risk. Also, understanding those pathways to homelessness among older adults and ensuring prevention and service interventions are adapted to meet different needs is another key piece to this policy puzzle. [iii]
[i] O’Keefe, D. One in three older women living in income poverty in Australia: study. Australian Ageing Agenda. March 9, 2016. Available at: https://www.australianageingagenda.com.au/2016/03/09/one-in-three-older-women-living-in-income-poverty-in-australia-study/
[iii] Brown RT, Goodman L, Guzman D, Tieu L, Ponath C, Kushel MB (2016) Pathways to Homelessness among Older Homeless Adults: Results from the HOPE HOME Study. PLoS ONE 11(5): e0155065. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155065