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I split my house with my daughter, without government help. Stop shaming ‘empty nesters’

The annual finger-jabbing ignores the fact that there are no meaningful incentives on offer

It’s Easter, a time when our thoughts inevitably turn to Connolly and Pearse and the current state of the kip they died for.

They would be amazed and appalled. The population has rocketed from 3.1 million to more than 5 million. Life expectation has soared from 55 or 56 to the early 80s. And – get this – Ireland shares top billing in Europe for our supersized houses. Compare that to Pearse’s time when half the population lived in one, two or three rooms – not three bedrooms to be clear, just rooms accommodating broods of eight to 10 children plus another family or two, maybe some lodgers and an outside toilet.

They might also be surprised at the response to these achievements. Think of the modern “patriots” burning down buildings earmarked for human shelter. Think of how the miraculously long-lived older folk now are often regarded as a bit of a nuisance and the annual outcry that they still have the neck to remain in their “under-occupied” homes for their dwindling years.

The ESRI is the latest to report, noting that nearly nine in 10 over-65s live in “under-occupied” housing. On the other hand European Commission statistics for 2019 suggest that it’s not just older people who are culpable. Seven in 10 Irish people of all ages are living in dwellings deemed too large for their needs. So why pick on older people? The average Irish house size is 1.5 times the EU average.


That sounds about right. Anyone driving around the country will observe the sprawling, newish kick-ass houses designed for old-style broods of six or seven as opposed to the norm of two or three. In a coastal suburb near Dublin, a multistorey newbuild home about the size of a small hotel looms over the not insignificant houses overlooking the bay. How it got planning permission is a mystery to the lower tiers.

In that light, the annual finger-pointing at “empty nesters” and single, widowed or divorced/separated occupants for wilfully remaining in a relatively modest family home is irritating. The notion that older folk have no use for a spare room for visitors and/or an office is indicative of a particular attitude.

Still the one thing we are not short of in this area is research.

Previous surveys of older homeowners suggested that there were 198,000-234,000 homes with two rarely used bedrooms and up to 100,000 homes with three. But the vast majority of these owners – who probably have about 10-15 years left on Earth if they’re lucky – were clear that they want to stay where they are for as long as they can. Their reasons are obvious. Dearly loved old spirits are in the weft and weave of the place. Fondly remembered pets are buried in the garden. That tree over there was planted on a long-ago anniversary and across the road is the neighbour who leaves gourmet meals at the door in times of crisis. How does anyone replace those bonds in their latter years when they need them most?

Nonetheless, the Department of Housing reported at one point that up to 120,000 households had signalled they would consider moving in the right circumstances. In precisely the language designed to set off some intense tooth-grinding, there was even talk of “supportive” rather than punitive measures to encourage people to downsize. That’s five years ago.

Earlier this year I wrote about dividing my own “under-occupied” house in rural-ish north Kildare with a daughter. The concept addressed the housing shortage and future needs of an ageing widow (one of 200,000 in Ireland) in a highly practical fashion, yet despite the numerous kites flown about financial inducements, there was not a single Government incentive – tax or otherwise – to proceed with the plan. We went ahead with it anyway and have no regrets, if you don’t count the four-month out-of-home experience with three pets, the swingeing costs and the scandal of non-existent public transport links in a rapidly expanding village with young families and a 350-pupil primary school.

There are scores of reasons why others can’t or won’t do something similar. What can be said with certainty is that this annual finger-jabbing fest will not release even a single garden shed never mind a house as long as imaginative alternatives, practical assistance and meaningful incentives are not on offer.

Yet one report after another has the same lame “what if” air about it. What if those moany old gits “released” a few hundred thousand dwellings and – hey presto – resolved the housing crisis for everyone else ...

What if they were sophisticated like Europeans and moved to those manageable bijou apartments 30km away ...

What if they just went away to wither and die among their own kind ...

What if a report was released and prompted some action?