Retirement villages better equipped to deal with the growing issue of dementia after new research

Growth in the popularity of retirement villages, coupled with a looming increase in dementia in Australia, has led to new research to help village operators become more dementia-friendly and deal with the issue head-on.

New research, released today by Alzheimer’s Australia NSW, has found that greater clarity is needed around the difference between a retirement village and residential aged care facility, as there is confusion about the different levels of support provided in each.

The research has also found there is an opportunity for retirement village operators to make villages ‘healthy ageing places’, which help reduce the incidence of dementia by promoting social interaction and healthy lifestyles, as well as sustaining the independence of residents.

Alzheimer’s Australia CEO The Hon. John Watkins AM said with more than 2,200 retirement villages in Australia, it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

“In 2014, approximately 184,000 Australians - 5.7 per cent of the over-65 population – were living in retirement villages. And this rate is projected to increase to 7.5 per cent in 2025, which means that there will be more than double the number of residents currently living in retirement villages in 10 years,” Mr Watkins said.

“Due largely to the ageing population, we also know that the number of people living with dementia is set to increase. There is currently an estimated 342,800 Australians living with dementia – 112,000 of these live in NSW – and, without a significant medical breakthrough, that is expected to soar to almost 900,000 by 2050. It is already the second leading cause of death in Australia.

“So dementia is an issue that is only going to become more prevalent generally, in our community, and in retirement villages as well.”

This is the first time dementia in retirement villages has been looked at in-depth and the research found vast variation in the design, management, operation and business models of retirement villages, which means variation in the types of support and services offered.

“Retirement village operators really need to make a decision,” Mr Watkins said.

“Do they want to operate a model that supports people with dementia or not? If they do, then they need to incorporate dementia-friendly design and principles to ensure they support people living with dementia. This could include education for staff and residents to be more dementia-aware and co-locating the village with an aged care facility for a smoother transition to aged care if the need arises.

“If they don’t want to support people with dementia, then they need to be upfront about that so residents don’t buy in to a village thinking certain supports may be available when they are not.

“We have heard of vastly mismatched expectations where family members think their loved one with dementia is receiving certain supports and care in the village when they are not. Some of that comes down to a misunderstanding of what a retirement village can and does offer compared with a residential aged care facility, so there really needs to be greater understanding about that.

“At the same time there are many things village operators can do to enable residents with dementia to stay in their home, in the village, for as long as possible before a move to a residential aged care facility needs to be considered.”

The research was co-funded by the IRT Foundation, which funds research to make communities more age-friendly, and the Property Council of Australia.

IRT Group Chief Executive Nieves Murray said the research would ultimately help people age well in their own homes for as long as possible.

"As a lifestyle and care provider, we know we are doing our best when we can tailor support and services to the individual, and encourage independence,” Ms Murray said.

“It's not always easy, of course, and some facilities are better placed to support residents with dementia than others. That's why this research is so important - it provides an evidence base to inform the support and services that we provide."

Mary Wood, Executive Director - Retirement Living at the Property Council of Australia, said retirement villages are a great setting to ‘age in place’, with age appropriate housing design and supportive communities, which leads to reduced hospital stays, improved mental wellbeing and delayed entry into aged care.

“Village managers and staff have significant contact with their residents, and many are well-placed to give guidance to the resident and their family about support options,” Ms Wood said.

“Retirement villages are ready to take the next step in providing support for people with dementia and this research will provide valuable guidance to village operators and their staff.”

Recommendations from the discussion paper, Dementia in Retirement Villages, include:

  • That State and Territory Governments ensure greater clarity and transparency for consumers when the relevant legislation is next reviewed;
  • That the Australian Government issue instruction that the MyAgedCare website provides information which clearly delineates the difference between residential aged care and retirement villages to avoid confusion for prospective residents;
  • That the Australian Government provide pilot funding for capital grants to retirement villages to incorporate dementia-friendly or universal housing design principles and environments in new retirement villages;
  • That State and Territory Governments incorporate reduced developer contributions in planning policies for retirement villages that support people with dementia and/or developments that co-locate retirement villages and residential aged care facilities that incorporate dementia-friendly design and environments;
  • That the Australian Government provide dedicated funding for developing dementia education programs for retirement village operators and staff;
  • That retirement village industry peaks include dementia education in training delivered to retirement village managers and encourage operators to develop housing that achieves the highest level in universal housing design.

A full copy of the discussion paper can be found at here.