Seniors find new ways to stay put in their homes

Aging in place doesn’t have to mean being ‘stuck in place’: researcher Charlene Sadler

At 90, Kathleen Gordon was at a crossroads. The nonagenarian was still carrying on a busy social life, but she was slowing down.

Mama, as Gordon is affectionately known to her friends and family, lives in a small cluttered apartment in a high-rise in Toronto. Now that she was starting to use a walker, she needed more space to get around. Her apartment was full of tripping hazards. The halls were narrow. Her shelves were piled with things that could fall.

Her daughters were worried. What Mama needed to do was to downsize — clear out the clutter so that her apartment would suit her needs. It wasn’t going to be easy.

“All the items Mama has accumulated over the years — there’s a story behind it,” says her daughter, Andrea. “And at the same time I really want to make the place safe for her.”

Many seniors want to age in place

The CBC Docs POV documentary The Art of Downsizing looks at three seniors going through the agonizing downsizing process. In Mama’s case, she wasn’t downsizing to move to a smaller home. She was downsizing so she could stay where she was, or “age in place.” It’s what most Canadians expect to do as they grow older.

“A lot of people haven’t planned on moving. They’ve lived in their homes all their lives and they want to stay,” says Raza Mirza, Network Manager of the Toronto-based National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly.

In Mirza’s case, his large extended family looked far into the future and imagined the type of life they wanted as they aged. They knew they wanted to be able to support each other through life’s milestones, like having children, becoming empty nesters, and eventually relying on younger relatives for help in their old age. To do this, family members bought homes on the same street. Mirza grew up surrounded by uncles and aunts and cousins living in five homes nearby. Now his parents have support as they age. But that takes an extraordinary level of planning, says Mirza.

Aging in place can be an excellent option. And it doesn’t need to be planned 30 years ahead. It does mean making tweaks to the home and potentially the person’s lifestyle, and sometimes even the community. Seniors may face increased costs as certain tasks have to be outsourced. For some seniors, aging in place can end up being ‘stuck in place,’ says Mirza, referring to seniors who don’t have the financial ability to move or pay for help.

Creative solutions to help seniors stay in their own homes

Mirza has piloted a program where seniors living alone in their homes in Toronto are matched with university students who need a place to live. The program, Toronto HomeShare, is meant to be mutually beneficial. Seniors get the kind of help a young person can provide. Students get cheaper rent. And they both gain companionship.

Mirza has expanded the program to Barrie and would like to see it expand it across the country.

“We’re looking at aging in place in real-time,” says Mirza.

There are apartment buildings where upwards of 40 percent of tenants are seniors, he says. It’s happening frequently enough that a new term has evolved: Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities or NORCs.

An organization called Oasis helps aging tenants work with landlords and government agencies to retrofit buildings to accommodate the growing senior population. This might mean adapting a room to become a communal dining facility, or creating community rooms where seniors can gather.

“It’s re-imagining the first and second floor of an apartment building,” said Mirza.

There are other innovative programs too: Virtual villages, where local volunteers fulfill help requests by seniors that are organized through a central intake line. There’s senior cohousing, where a group builds or retrofits a home to enable supportive living.

In Mama’s case, her daughters and grandchildren found ways to make her small apartment work for her. They taped carpets to the floor to eliminate tripping hazards. They cleared hallways so they were wide enough for a walker.

“I don’t want to go to a nursing home,” said Mama.” I want to stay around neighbours and friends.”

Watch The Art of Downsizing on CBC Docs POV.