There are many challenges faced by seniors wishing to age in place, but there are also many solutions. Some of them are as conventional as building apartment units and others are as complex as building whole communities.
The three elements that are required to help people live well into old age are an accessible home, support services that are available when needed and an environment that is stimulating, offering a connection to people of all ages and access to nature. Affordability of these elements are critical for people on fixed incomes.
The most practical long-term solution for increasing accessible housing stock would be for anyone building a new home to use universal design.
The concept of Universal Design was developed by architect Ron Mace in the mid-1980s as “design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Some of the most common design specifications would be ramps and 36-inch doorways, grab bars in bathrooms and lowered light switches.
Adaptable design is another interesting method. The Center for Universal design defines it as “features that can be adjusted in a short time by unskilled labor without involving structural or finished material changes.” For example, if a person is quadriplegic and cannot wash dishes, they might not care if there are cabinets under the kitchen sink that prevent a wheelchair from rolling under because someone else will help with dishes. They might prefer that space for storage instead. A cabinet that can easily be added or removed solves this problem and it gives the homeowner more control of the aesthetic and usability of their home.
Although the idea is extremely practical and has been around for more three decades it is still seldom put into practice on residential builds. Likely this is in pursuit of lower costs, but also due to a lack of education and building code requirements for accessibility.
A paper from the National Research Council on building codes explains that, in 2010 the Government of Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but as applied in the National Building Code, these rights seem to only apply to public spaces and large rental complexes, not for private, residential homes.
Since new apartment builds in rural areas are almost non-existent, there is effectively no vacant, accessible housing to be found for rent. If we were to increase Universal Design in residential buildings, in the next 30 years we might have adequate options for accessible living without any business or government investment. Although the cost is born by the homeowner, doing the work upfront and including it in a mortgage is much less stressful than rushing a renovation after an emergency and having to pay out-of-pocket for it.
There are even more creative solutions that would push us beyond our current housing paradigm, such as a return to multi-generational housing. This has become more popular in the past few years with families wishing to build several small, affordable homes on the same property. A Google search finds whole Pinterest pages dedicated to “design ideas for family compounds.” As people return to New Brunswick from Alberta and other provinces, this will likely become more common.
Family compounds are a fairly traditional way to live in New Brunswick. I grew up in Cassidy Lake, New Brunswick where there were good jobs to be had at the potash mine and so my grandparents split their land into one-acre lots and gave them to the three of their five children who wanted to live in the area as wedding gifts. The lots were adjacent, so as younger children we could visit other houses alone by taking a path through the woods. There are still two sons living there and it feels reassuring to know that my grandparents will have someone close by when they need help with the garden and putting the wood in.
Intentional communities are an option that has not been well explored in New Brunswick. These communities might be built around a common ideology such as having access to nature or spaces to garden, they also share decision making in how the community will run. Small stand-alone homes or duplexes could be built and owned or rented.
The South Knowlesville Community Land Trust, around since 2008, has about a dozen rural households that share the Knowlesville Art and Nature Center as their community hub. They don’t call themselves an intentional community, rather they have collectively come up with the term “land-sharing community.” The homes in the community are owned by families, but the land is used on a 99-year-lease. There are multiple benefits to this idea: people only need to pay for the cost of building their home, and the land becomes sheltered from real estate developers or investors speculating on land prices.
There is an opportunity in intentional communities for seniors to have shared accommodations on the site that would function as a second-tier of supported housing. This space would not be an institutional nursing home, but rather, residents living in private rooms with shared common spaces and basic supports for shared meals, cleaning and personal care. Homecare workers might live on-site in subsidized housing. This step could greatly prolong the time people spend in community before having to go to government facilities.
This idea appeals to Ann Wetherilt who supports the Upper Nashwaak Seniors Housing Association in finding solutions for aging in place. After living in different cities and countries during her career, Wetherilt moved to Stanley. She was looking for a quiet rural community to retire.
Wetherilt’s mother lived in a senior’s community with two-tiered housing support in New Zealand called the Atawhai Retirement Village, which was run by the Presbyterian Church at the time and has since become privatized and very expensive.
Wetherilt told me in November that she has added two wood stoves to the main level of her home, as well as two heat pumps, to reduce reliance on the oil furnace and with a view to being able to live on one floor if it becomes necessary. But the house is old and very large and, like many rural homes, accessibility and renovations are a challenge.
It is possible to make an intentional community that puts a high priority on housing seniors, but is still multi-generational. Students and single people would benefit from the same small and affordable units that seniors would. There is a social cost of making housing exclusive to stage of life and to treating nuclear families as the only kind of family unit. We create a situation that allows ghettoization to occur.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines ghettoization as “treat(ing) a particular group in society as if they are different from the other parts of society and as if their activities and interests are not important to other people.” Ghettoization is painfully obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic as those succumbing to the virus are predominately seniors living in long-term care homes in all provinces.
Another option that is perhaps a bit outside of our comfort zone in New Brunswick is shared housing, but that could be changing. St. Thomas University and The Ville Cooperative are currently undertaking the Inter-generational Housing Pilot Project, which has university students in the City of Fredericton living with seniors.
For the pilot, they have decided to let both groups negotiate the terms of the stay. There might be a combination of rent, time spent doing or chores and errands or social time in exchange for lodging. The project was funded through the federal government’s New Horizon’s for Seniors grant and offers a creative take on multi-generational housing. This option might not appeal to all seniors, but the year-to-year nature of student housing does allow an opportunity to try the idea with a limited amount of long-term commitment.
In 2020, many people’s ideas of what they value have shifted and as our focus becomes perhaps more local and family oriented, we will have many exciting alternative housing models to explore. If you know of interesting projects in New Brunswick, please email me, it would be great to explore this important topic in more depth with readers.
Read part 1 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.