A Place to Belong: Exploring Housing Options That Foster Social Connection Through All Life Stages

An elderly couple walking along a sidewalk next to a building.

Photo: Russ Windstrand/Getty Images

As planned communities go, this is close to heaven on earth. Surrounded by 11 acres of urban farmland, Agritopia, located in Gilbert, Ariz., near Phoenix, is made up of pretty houses in all shapes and sizes with front porches and low neighbour-friendly fences nestled along tree-lined streets. Here, the air is fragrant with citrus and olive groves; communal organic gardens and farm crops abound; homegrown foodstuff can be purchased on the honour system; and bistros, bars and artisanal businesses bustle at your doorstep and welcome international tourists and visitors from nearby communities. But what truly sets Agritopia apart? With its seniors facility offering the spectrum of elderly care mere yards from the primary school, Agritopia is a true cradle-to-grave, all-ages-all-stages community.

You can live here.
You can die here.
You can age in place.

Although there is nothing quite like it in Canada, the ability to live safely, independently and comfortably in the same home or community is a hot topic in our country today. In fact, since the World Health Organization (WHO) launched its global Age-Friendly Communities (AFC) initiative back in 2007, more than 900 Canadian municipalities have changed or are in the process of changing their policies, services and structures to accommodate age-in-place living. One driver of the movement is the hardships some seniors endure when they’re forced to abandon lifelong social connections.

“For many people, breaking ties with familiar social relationships that have been established over many years is very difficult,” says Verena Menec, a professor at the University of Manitoba whose main research is in the area of healthy aging. “It’s not just family but the grocery store clerk, the guy at the bank and other people they’ve connected with.”

Folks who live in communities with senior facilities can manage to maintain at least some of these connections. But those who don’t are forced to move miles away from their original homes. This makes it difficult for friends and families to visit and, even if they do, the senior is vulnerable to feelings of isolation and homesickness.

Yet another driver behind the aging-in-place movement is the benefit communities realize when they keep seniors in their fold. “Not only are seniors a huge part of the social fabric, they also contribute significantly to the local economy as well,” says Jamie Shipley, a research specialist at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Ontario region.

A few put-that-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it stats from the CMHC website: senior families have a higher net worth compared to all families; they spend more locally on goods and services; older adults donate more dollars and significantly out-volunteer all Canadians; and in terms of helping out the younger generations, seniors not only chip in for major purchases, they also contribute a whopping four million hours of unpaid child care each week. “Trust me,” laughs Shipley. “Municipalities are really interested in maintaining their senior population.”

Housing Options: A pillar of the age-friendly community

Of the eight categories that make up the AFC checklist (see a partial list, next page), housing is among the most challenging. You can’t just knock down an entire subdivision built for young families in the ’50s, say, simply because it’s no longer suitable for the aging population. One way the government is working around this is by offering grants to help people renovate their spaces so they can safely stay in their homes. Folks can find programs they may be eligible for in their province through the Developing and Renovating menu on the CMHC website.

Home-sharing, too, is gaining traction. HomeShareCanada.org, for example, offers information about services in southern Ontario that help senior homeowners find younger renters who can help with household chores in exchange for reduced rent. Goldenhomesharingconnections.ca, a site created by Dorothy Mazeau, a Bolton, Ont.-based realtor and retired architect, connects older men and women wishing to share their homes with other seniors. A brief point-form profile and up to 500 words describing yourself and what you’re after kicks off the process.

In terms of new builds, developers are coming on board with designs that make aging in place possible such as “visitable” housing, that is, a home with a no-step entrance, wider doorways and clear passageways, and a wheelchair-accessible bathroom on the main floor. A subdivision of such homes by Bridgewater Development in Winnipeg is one of the bestselling in the city.
“Developers are realizing that if you have a clean slate, a farmer’s field, there is really no excuse not to build a home that an aging boomer can easily visit,” says Shipley.

Other concepts include flexible homes, houses that from construction are designed to be easily adapted to the changing needs of aging such as a plumbing system that allows homeowners to one day convert a main-floor office, say, into a bathroom. Secondary suites are also on the rise. In one model offered by Caraco, a Kingston developer, the home has two front doors, one leading to the main floor and the other to a partially above-grade “daylight” basement self-contained suite, which would allow adult children and elderly parents to be close but each live independently.

And then there is shared or co-ownership wherein two or more seniors purchase a property together, a legally complex scenario requiring a high level of commitment.

It’s daunting but doable, says Martha Casson, one of four women, now aged 66 to 73 who bought, renovated and moved into a huge heritage home in downtown Port Perry, Ont., back in November of 2016. Each member of the foursome, affectionately dubbed The Golden Girls (after the 1980s sitcom, of course), pitched in about $275,000, most of which came from the sales of their individual homes, to improve and purchase the Port Perry property.
Each woman has her own bedroom, sitting area and accessible ensuite but share the kitchen and living areas as well as a large yard. A finished basement holds an extra bedroom with ensuite for a caregiver, if one is needed in the future, and there is a guest room, also with an ensuite, for overnight visitors or a second caregiver, if warranted. An elevator runs between the basement, main and second floor.

For $1,500 a month each, which includes utilities, taxes, inside and outside services such as weekly cleanings and lawn care, a contingency fund, food and even wine, the ladies live in luxury, Casson says. With the average senior residence in Canada being close to $2,300 a month, you can’t argue the savings, and Casson likes the investment angle, too. Monthly fees at senior facilities may deplete your disposable income or rainy day fund and perhaps the inheritance you hope to leave, she points out, but with shared ownership there is a chance your nest egg could increase.

Still, it’s the social benefits of day-to-day companionship that you can’t put a price tag on. “It’s nice to come home to somebody,” Casson says.
“We take turns cooking, and I have to tell you it’s nice not to have to cook every day, but it’s great, too, when you do. You go out and do the shopping and then prepare the meal but afterwards, someone else cleans up.”

Is every day rosy? No, just like in the rest of life, there is no perfect scenario for aging. The founder of Agritopia, Joe Johnston, grew up on this farmland – his parents purchased the plot of land on which it sits back in 1960. Although his desire to develop the community wasn’t based solely on keeping the family together, today, he and his wife live amid four generations of Johnstons, including his parents who are both in their late 80s.

Whether this is your cup of tea or not doesn’t matter, says Menec; the point is that you have a choice. “We did a research project in which we asked people what they wanted, and the responses were all over the place. But the thing that is clear is people want options.”

In other words, be it a planned community, a senior residence, a modified home, a new build or a big house with a gaggle of gal pals, we all want to live in our own idea of heaven on birth-to-earth.

A partial checklist for essential features of age-friendly communities:

1. Outdoor Spaces and Buildings

  • Sufficient green spaces and outdoor seating
  • Pedestrian crossings that are safe for people with different levels and types of disability

2. Transportation

  • Taxis and Uber are accessible and affordable
  • Driver education and refresher courses are promoted for all drivers

3. Housing

  • Sufficient, affordable housing in areas that are safe and close to services and the rest of the community
  • Home modification options are available and affordable

4. Social Participation

  • Events are held at times convenient for older people
  • There is consistent outreach to include people at risk of social isolation

5. Respect and Social Inclusion

  • Older people are regularly consulted by public, voluntary and commercial  services on how to serve them better
  • Schools provide opportunities to learn about aging and older people

6. Civic Participation and Employment

  • A range of flexible options for older volunteers is available, with training, recognition, guidance and compensation for personal costs
  • Discrimination on the basis of age alone is forbidden

7. Communication and Information

Printed information has large lettering; the main ideas are shown by clear headings and bold-face type

8 Community Support and Health Services

  • An adequate range of health and community support services
  • Health and social services are convenient and accessible