According to the 2011 Australian Census, 36 percent of the older homeless population comprises of women. While men are more likely to experience homelessness across their lifespans in Australia, women are more likely to first experience homelessness after the age of 50. Issues of homelessness among older women in Australia have been described as a symptom of entrenched social and economic issues that compound, and then implode later in life. Financial disadvantages, often caused by poor educational opportunities and/or work history may be setting the stage for homelessness among older Australian women.
Other factors influencing this problem include pay gaps between men and women (which have been noted to be as high as 17-18 percent over the span of a career), poor superannuation savings for retirement, domestic problems (such as divorce, separation, or domestic violence), personal health crises, and a lack of affordable housing. Due to many of these factors, women are more likely to experience poverty than men, which in turn can cause homelessness. These challenges are unique to women, and potential solutions may lie in addressing the structural inequalities that put women at risk in the first place.
The cost of housing has also been cited as a contributing problem, where both affordability and availability can be a challenge. Across the Australian continent, nearly 500,000 low-and moderate-income earners are unable to buy or rent homes. Women at or nearing retirement age seem to be making up a growing subsection of this demographic.
Relationship breakdowns also contribute to homelessness, as they often leave financially dependent women in a vulnerable position. According to the Housing for the Aged Action Group, 70 percent of the women seeking assistance from their organization are women living in poverty as a result of a relationship breakdown. Many of the women at risk of homelessness are facing these challenges for the first time in their lives.
The implications for homelessness among older adults can be far reaching. Older adults who experience homelessness likely do not have access to the physical and mental healthcare that is essential for healthy aging. Older homeless adults may also be at an increased risk for premature mortality. A study conducted in the U.S. found life expectancy among the homeless population to be 10 or more years shorter than the general population.
In global studies of homelessness among the aging, it has been found that contributing factors to this problem tend to be a reflection of structural issues (such as fewer job opportunities or poor housing availability) more so than personal risk factors (such as mental illness or substance abuse). In general, more work needs to be done to identify the potential causes and subsequent risks for homelessness among older adults. As a whole, there is an urgent need to advocate for preventative structural measures that can mitigate the risk of vulnerability among older adults in Australia, as well as elsewhere in the world.
Diana Kingsbury is a PhD student and graduate assistant in prevention science at the Kent State University College of Public Health.