Many people want to stay in their homes as they get older. But, be careful what you wish for
By Jasleen Mahil | August 4, 2023
When people envision their retirement years, a “forever home” is usually part of the plan. But things don’t always go according to plan — at least not “forever.” We become attached to the homes we love, even after they no longer suit our needs.
“I had one client whose family called me because mom really needed a nursing home, in their mind. She wasn’t managing, she wasn’t coping, she wasn’t safe in the home,” says Jolyn Hall. She is a housing navigator with Edmonton55, which assists older adults and their families in making decisions about their housing options. Hall notes that the emotional connection we have to our homes, or a fear of change, can make it difficult for some to consider moving.
The majority of Canadian seniors wish to live in their current homes for as long as possible. A Statistics Canada study released in 2021 showed that 78 per cent of Canadian seniors lived in private dwellings that were owned by members of their households.
But, to “age in place” often requires renovations. Most homes are not built with aging in place in mind.
Ron Wickman, an architect in Edmonton, advocates for making communities and homes with the necessary requirements so people can safely age in place.
The majority of clients directly contacting Wickman (whose father, Percy, was a political figure and disability activist) are in emergency situations. For example, someone has had a fall and now needs changes to the home. And, for those who wish to proceed with renovations, cost is an obstacle.
“A lot of people just kind of fight through it, right? And they just do makeshift things. Often, they can be quite dangerous ramps that are super steep and you know they’re just doing the best they can, [but] they don’t really have the resources to make things happen,” says Wickman.
To help, the Provincial government’s Seniors Home Adaptation and Repair Program (SHARP) offers loans and grants for age-in-place renovations. Alberta Seniors with an annual total income of $75,000 or less may be eligible for a SHARP loan of up to $40,000. SHARP grants are available to those seniors who do not qualify for a loan.
Builders frequently reach out to Wickman for more information on age-in-place renovations. As the list of renovations needed to make a home safe can be extensive, Wickman tries to educate others on three critical features that must be considered for any age-in-place renovation or new build: an accessible entrance where the floor level is as close to the ground as possible, an elevator or a stair lift, and an accessible bathroom.
“So yeah, those three things will dictate again the degree of difficulty,” says Wickman. “Things like wider doors, even dealing with the kitchen — that can be a tricky one as well. But what will make or break a renovation are those three things. And what will absolutely help when you’re building a new house for aging in place are those three things. So, if you design those three features in the beginning, life is sweet for you.”
Hall says, referring to the family who thought their mother needed a nursing home, the goal should be to find housing that provides safety, independence and social connections; sometimes, that means finding solutions outside of aging in place.
“When we went out to meet, really what we learned is because her home had six steps at the front, getting in and out was hard. And so now she was only mobilizing five to 10 metres from room to room. So, her mobility was declining… And because she couldn’t get out of the house her social needs were declining and so she mentally wasn’t managing well.”
So, instead of aging in that home, the decision was made to make a smart move.
“We moved her to a condo that was completely accessible, one level, right beside a grocery store, right beside a medical centre,” says Hall. “And, after a couple of months of gaining some of her mobility and strength back, she’s 100 per cent independent, there is nothing that family is doing for her. And that’s really a situation where there were so many barriers in the home. By changing the home, we actually changed her entire spectrum of what independence looked like to not have to rely on family… If she had stayed too long, she probably would have been going to a nursing home.”
Whether aging in place or moving, Hall advises people to start having discussions about what “aging well” looks like with those in our lives.
“Older adults need to talk to their adult children, adult children need to talk to their parents and work together as to what are the goals like, because it is so much easier when a health crisis happens and family knows what your wishes are and can activate your favourite services and know who to call on your behalf to bring in meals. When we have those conversations early, everyone can be on that same page so that when a significant health change happens, because it will pretty much will for all of us. We need to be prepared.”
“Moving Here to Live”
Seniors moving into retirement living are usually independent, but are often looking for a sense of community, more accessible spaces or to do less household work.
According to Statistics Canada, about 425,000 seniors in this country live in nursing homes or retirement residences.
Robert Olson is the executive director at the retirement residence Glenora Park by Revera. He explains that while some may think of retirement living as a loss of independence, it’s actually the opposite.
“Sometimes we hear they thought they were moving here to die, when in fact they are moving here to live,” says Olson.
Glenora Park has on-site amenities that include a golf simulator, a movie theatre, an indoor salt water pool, resident gardens, dining venues and views of the River Valley.
In addition to amenities, retirement living can offer residents a sense of purpose and fulfilment. At Glenora Park, individuals have the opportunity to become involved in the Residents’ Council, join swimming classes or volunteer at local charities.
“Residents continue to live a life of purpose while having peace of mind about their ability to age in place,” explains Olson.
If a resident’s health needs change, Glenora Park has an assisted living area, and if an individual is living with cognitive decline, a dedicated memory-care neighbourhood is available in the retirement home.
“It can change your relationship in wonderful ways,” says Olson. “Your visits are no longer about appointments, or errands… Your visits will just be about connecting, and your loved one can become your parent again.”