How older, poor, single women are being overlooked

Difficult times: Wendy is one of a growing number of older single women living in poverty.

Difficult times: Wendy is one of a growing number of older single women living in poverty. Photo: Andy Zakeli

For the past four years, Wendy has been living in a double garage. In one corner, the owners have built a bathroom the size of a walk-in-robe, squeezing in a shower, tub and toilet. The rest of the space is what a real estate agent might optimistically call "open plan". To make it feel more like a real home, Wendy has divided it into two sections: her living quarters, which include a small stove; and a workspace where she works on her PhD and composes classical and experimental music.

This small space is also a world away from the home Wendy once thought she'd have: nothing particularly flash, just a small house with a bedroom and a study where she could teach music and work.

Until a couple of years ago, teaching flute and classical guitar was how Wendy made some extra money to supplement her scholarship allowance. Before that, she had a secure public service job, from which she was made redundant in the 1990s.

Today, the cold, windy space she calls home is is not fit for a music studio. "I can't possibly teach here - it's too small – and it's not very professional to have students in your private space," she says.

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The garage is at least affordable: Wendy now spends a quarter of her pay on rent. If she were to rent a house, it would swallow up at least half of her weekly pay.

Wendy's situation is not unique. As a woman nearing her 60s, she is part of a growing number of older women who are finding themselves locked out of the property market because of a lack of savings and superannuation, mainly due to a part-time or sporadic working life.

Jeanette Large is the chief executive officer of Women's Property Initiative (WPI), and she has seen many women come through the doors of her organisation. Most of these women, she says, are single. And they need help.

"Many women assume they will have family and support in their later years, but many people don't have that," she says. "Some are divorced, have been widowed or, for whatever reason, have decided to be single." Others, for whatever reason, don't have access to family support.

When it comes to older women, Large believes Australia is facing an unprecedented crisis, a problem that, until recently, has been largely overlooked by government and support bodies. 

In 2012, WPI  did a presentation focusing on the issue at a national housing convention. At that stage, it was still only an emerging issue. "Since then, it's been picking up momentum, with research and papers being produced, but the actual finance just isn't there yet," she says. 

Like Large, former publisher and counsellor Kaye Healey saw the problem coming years ago.

While researching social trends as long as 20 years ago, she found that Australia was not only facing a rapidly ageing population, but another problem within that: hundreds of thousands of poor, single, middle-aged women who, once they retired, would have nowhere secure to live. And it got her thinking.

Healey owns a permaculture property in the Southern Highlands of NSW. In 2012, she opened her farm - called "Eden Farm" -  to single women over 50 as part of the Women's Communal Project for one year. Her aim was to encourage women to think about their retirement living options while they were still working, and in the meantime consider communal living. 

Although the project is over and she is now selling the farm, Healy says the women who participated got a lot out of the experience. One idea was to set up tenants-in-common groups, where several women could pool their resources and buy a property together.

"But I would say to be careful when doing this, because what happens when someone pulls out, dies or goes to a nursing home? It really needs to be thought out beforehand," Healy cautions.

Another option was creating a national database, run by a seniors organisation or a government agency, where women who already own their homes but live alone could plug in their details and be matched to other suitable women who were looking for somewhere to live.

Healy believes that unless state and federal governments acknowledge the scope of the problem, it will soon spiral out of control. "Within the next 10 years, we'll see increasing feminisation of poverty. It's already happening, and no one is taking much notice," she says.

Catherine Brown, the chief executive officer of the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation, says her organisation has looked extensively into the issue of ageing and homelessness. In 2013, the foundation launched a project focusing on the poverty many Australians continue to face, in particular older women. The survey included eight family categories - young couples, couples with children, single parents, young single men, young single women, elderly couples, elderly single men and elderly single women - and measured how long each of those groupings were living in poverty.

The survey found that 82 per cent of people living in abject poverty were elderly, with women over 65 making up nearly 36 per cent, followed by elderly men (29.5 per cent). "That's 533,000 older women who are living below the poverty line nationally. I personally find that very disturbing," Brown says.

 She says a lack of affordable housing was the biggest problem. She believes that if the government invests money in affordable housing, increases the ability for NGOs to build low-cost homes and sets up community land trusts for Australians, these women would have a chance to escape near-certain poverty.

The foundation, which funded The Women's Property Initiative, is also looking to establish a real estate agency to help older people get access to housing. In addition, Brown would like to help older women get back into the workforce.

"Older women are a fantastic resource, [but] they're a voiceless group. Because they're so dignified and wanting to help themselves, it's hard for them to admit they need extra help."

Wendy still has a year left until she finishes her PhD. After that, her wish is to come back to Melbourne and rent a house close to public transport and other amenities. Ideally, she'd love to buy, but despite a sizeable deposit, no bank will give Wendy a home loan beyond 10 years.  

"I've been looking into this seriously for a while and last time I went to a bank, they laughed at me," she says. "As it stands, I absolutely cannot buy my own house in Melbourne. Because of my age, I can only get money for 10 years, max, which immediately reduces the amount of money they would lend me.

"I feel pretty depressed about it, to tell you the truth. I really feel insecure and uncertain about what will happen in the future," she says.