Harder to age well without comforts: study

John Kidman |

Energy costs are making it harder for Australians to age comfortably and healthily in their own homes.

The two are are inexorably linked, says Queensland University of Technology professor Ross Gordon, who wants policy and programs to take a holistic perspective acknowledging the association.

While there’s an increasing focus on living longer and better, he says for this to work, energy needs to be affordable and sustainable.

“There are older Australians going without either heating or cooling or not using certain important appliances to conserve energy and reduce their bill, Prof Gordon said.

“And in many cases, it is harmful to their health and well-being.”

He and co-authors Dr Theresa Harada and Dr Fiona Spotswood recently completed in-home ethnographies with 39 elderly residents in the NSW Illawarra region.

From varying cultural backgrounds and housing arrangements, the group included Carl who lives alone in a 120-year-old home which is difficult to heat and cool.

Due to a bad fall, he still does his own laundry but no longer hangs his washing outside.

Instead of paying for an energy guzzling clothes dryer, though, Carl set up an elaborate pulley system in his kitchen.

He’s happy because it saves enough electricity to run his TV most of the day which is his main source of social contact and entertainment.

However Carl’s spartan use of his reverse cycle air conditioner means he’s exposed to a temperature range well below World Health Organisation recommendations.

“He has to negotiate a balancing act between caring for self through bodily warmth and avoiding billing anxieties,” Prof Gordon said.

Another participant in the study, 72-year-old Georgie, is a retired professional in her own unit which is also cold in winter and hot in summer.

Yet she hasn’t installed air-conditioning and rarely uses her electric space heater, meaning she doesn’t feel she can invite friends over because her home isn’t cosy and welcoming.

“She is going without bodily comforts and is constrained in her ability to socialise,” Prof Gordon said.

“She instead seeks social connectiveness and cognitive stimulation through her use of appliances like a laptop to study at university as a mature student.”

While government policies aim to help older people feel happier, stay connected, have a sense of purpose and be active, there is more to consider, Prof Gordon says.

“Less attention is paid to how bodily differences that are shaped by age, ethnicity, ability, gender, socio-economic class, politics and market structures affect how successfully older people can manage their energy, health and wellbeing needs.

“There has certainly been little consideration of the role that domestic energy consumption plays in ageing successfully.”