This past summer I had the pleasure of connecting with the newly-formed Upper Nashwaak Valley Seniors Housing Association to discuss opportunities for rural seniors housing. Their concerns are varied, but the main issue is that we don’t have enough accessible housing to allow seniors to age in their own community.
The Association wants to find solutions that would allow seniors to be able to stay in rural communities, whether they be related to building new housing, renovations on existing homes or creating more affordable ways to access support services at home. The Association has applied for a grant through the federal government’s New Horizons for Seniors Program to do a series of community roundtables on the topic of seniors housing.
Chairperson for the Association Ellen-Anne Bubar says that, “It is important to make time and space to actually listen to what seniors want. We don’t want to make decisions without understanding that first.”
Having all generations live together makes for strong communities. Seniors have participated in and contributed to rural community life for decades, why shouldn’t they be able to age where they choose?
Many times over the last few years, the group has heard about people losing mobility or being overwhelmed by the many tasks of home maintenance, and having to relocate to Fredericton because there is no affordable, accessible housing available for rent or sale in their own community.
Linda Hood of Cross Creek is part of the group. She hopes to live in her current home for another ten years, but says it can be a challenge at times. Hood told me of one couple who had to leave Stanley because they were having a hard time caring for their home and property. At that time there were no vacant units in the only two apartment buildings in the village. After living in Fredericton for a few years, a rental unit became available and they moved back to Stanley. Hood tells me that the local home care support services are very good, and if people can find suitable housing, they can get help with many of their daily needs.
Other couples have left the community, but come back as often as they can to visit in the summer (when the roads are better). “People miss the getting out to see friends and going to church in Stanley. People that are leaving often go to the same apartment on McKnight Street in Fredericton. At least then they will know their neighbours,” says Hood.
The lack of housing is not only for seniors but for anyone with a chronic or degenerative disease, or even for those with temporary disabilities related to broken bones or surgery. Sometimes people need to stay in hospital or with family until they can get back into their own home.
Often times, inaccessible homes lead to falls, which may end in hospitalization or death. The 2012 provincial government’s “New Brunswick Health Indicators Report” found that falls make up the highest percentage of accidents in New Brunswick at 59 per cent; comparatively, motor vehicle accidents are about 9 per cent. Statistics for the cost of falls could not be located for New Brunswick, but a 2007 study released by Dalhousie University Population Health Research unit showed that “fall-related injuries sustained by seniors are costing Nova Scotia’s health-care system $72 million a year.”
Bubar herself took great care to update her home for accessibility, adding features that she believed would make it easy for her to age in place. This included putting in 36-inch-wide doors, lowering the electrical outlets, and installing a wheelchair accessible shower. Her cousin Brian, lived next door and helped her with tasks as needed. She felt safe in her home.
In the winter of 2019, Bubar fell on the ice and had multiple fractures in her lower leg that resulted in surgery, a one-month stay in hospital and an additional month and a half in a wheelchair. The summer prior, she had had a deck re-built that was at the same height as the top step (leaving a nine-inch-gap between the deck and the door frame). This minor oversight (that many of us might make) had larger consequences, and meant that Bubar had to have a ramp and landing installed before she could come home.
Unfortunately, another unexpected event has changed how Bubar feels in her home.
“The one person that I was counting on to be here to help me, my cousin Brian, died very suddenly last month. He was 20 years younger than me; it was a total shock. All of a sudden, I am in a very different place than I was a few months ago. I lived in Fredericton for a lot of years, and spent many years in an apartment. That is not something I want to go back to. So, what are my alternatives? Like many, I may not have a choice but to leave Nashwaak Bridge. My family homestead was in this community, we have deep roots here. Having housing that is accessible and in, or near my community is important to me,” says Bubar.
Accessible housing is an intersectional social issue. Safe and affordable housing can also be seen as an issue that affects women more than men, since they tend to live longer. Women with mobility issues may also be less likely to leave home in a domestic violence situation if they believe they won’t be able to find accessible and affordable housing. In New Brunswick and elsewhere, rates of preventable injuries tend to increase as community and household affluence levels decrease.
Every senior will have a slightly different issue to deal with, but there are a few common problems that we need to address. Around 40,000 New Brunswick households heat primarily with wood, likely the majority of those homes are rural. This often means filling a furnace in the basement and being unable to leave a house unattended during a hospital stay. Those living in older farm houses will inevitably have stairs to climb, they are often steep, narrow and likely not to modern building code. Many homes built in the 1980s and 90s have split-entries which make them almost impossible to safely add ramps to.
It is possible for us to start renovating our homes at any time during our life, but that does pose problems for those living in older homes where building systems are not up to code. In an older home, adding a downstairs bathroom might mean a complete re-work of electrical and plumbing, adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost.
Another financial difficulty is that the price of building a new home often far exceeds the price that a senior will get for the sale of their current home, even when the new home is smaller. Having kept an eye on real estate in the Nashwaak Valley for the past year, older, unrenovated houses can go for as little as $60,000 – $80,000, while the cost of building a modest one-level home will easily run $100,000 – $160,000. People on fixed incomes simply can’t make up that gap.
To honour the rights of our seniors to age in place in the community of their choosing, we need housing that is both accessible and affordable. This isn’t a “senior’s issue,” we will all age and many of us will be temporarily or permanently disabled in some way in our lifetime. We are all obliged to work on this issue together at the community level.
Anyone wishing to contact with the Upper Nashwaak Seniors Housing Association can get in touch with Chairperson Ellen Anne-Bubar (email firstname.lastname@example.org). The group would gladly accept donations and new volunteers.
Read part 2 of this series here.
Amy Floyd lives in the Nashwaak Valley at Taymouth. She works for the RAVEN Project on rural food security and is supporting the work of the Upper Nashwaak Seniors Housing Association.