Shaking up senior housing in Winnipeg

A 70-year-old woman is out to change the way we think about senior's housing. Just don't call them the 'Golden Girls.'

A 70-year-old woman transforms her family home into an intentional community

Beverly Suek transformed the home where she raised seven children into an intentional community where women can age together. (Bridget Forbes)

Walking past the house on the tree-lined street in Riverview, you would never know that something radical was going on inside. But behind the curtains, Beverly Suek is out to change the way we think about senior housing in Winnipeg.

"I think that the whole nature of housing for old people is just the pits," said Suek, 70. "I don't like the way things are run. I call it the 'crafts and crib set.' Entertain us until we get too old and then we die?"  

Suek has transformed the three-storey house where she raised seven children and later ran a bed and breakfast into what she calls the Women's Housing Initiative Manitoba. It's an intentional community where women over 50 can live together, share everything and support one another as they grow older.

'Why do we have to be lonely?'

"I never wanted to live by myself," said Suek whose husband died in 2000.

"I work in elections quite a bit and there's a woman who is older and she's got six locks on the door and she's dying to talk to somebody. Then you go three doors down and there's another woman who is equally lonely and you think, 'Why do we have to be lonely?'"

So she put out the call for other like-minded women to join her.  Lynda Trono, 56, was the first to join in June of 2015.  

Lynda Trono and Nicoline Guerrier moved in with Suek in 2015. Food is all shared and they take turns cooking. (Bridget Forbes)
"I was living alone in a condo in Osborne Village, and it was lovely, but it was lonely. I couldn't stand it!" said Trono.

When someone sent her an email describing Suek's vision she jumped at the opportunity. "I just remember feeling completely at home the first time I came," said Trono of visiting Suek in what would become their shared home.

"We sat down and had tea, and I felt like it clicked".

Nicoline Guerrier, 53, moved in later that year. She came to Winnipeg from Montreal for work, and is only planning to stay in the city for two years. "It seemed like a great place to live to be immediately connected to a group of people who had similar values," said Guerrier.

Not the 'Golden Girls'

Just don't call them the 'Golden Girls.' A chorus of groans erupts in the kitchen when the TV sitcom is brought up.

"That show was all about dating," said Suek. "This is more about relationships and community."

The community is growing. Another roommate joined in January, and there is still one vacancy. The roommates try to spread the word through e-mail and their networks. They're looking for similarly-minded people.

"We do an interview to make sure that we have shared values," said Suek. There's a questionnaire about how potential roommates might handle conflicts that arise. The women gather for house meetings every few weeks to discuss any issues and keep the lines of communication open.  

Six kinds of milk

The three women agree that the challenges are few and far between.  

"If you have your heart set on eating something that you've set aside, if you don't label it sometimes you go back sometimes it's gone," admitted Guerrier with a smile. The women buy groceries with a communal pot of money they all contribute to and take turns cooking. "To me that's just an exercise in letting go."
The kitchen was renovated so while one roommate cooks the others gather to chat. (Bridget Forbes)

"If you look in our fridge we have one per cent, two per cent, skim, cream, and 3.5 per cent," laughed Trono.

"And almond milk!" But cooking together is also her favourite thing about the arrangement. Suek had gutted the kitchen and renovated so while one roommate cooks, the others have a place to sit and visit.

"It's kind of like a party," said Trono.

In sickness and in health

Suek still owns the home and each roommate pays a different price depending on the size of their room and amenities. But by September 2017, Suek hopes to change that, and set up a new mortgage as a co-op.  

"One of the problems with women who are retiring is that they don't have the same level of pensions that guys do, because they either worked part time or they stayed home for a period of time." explained Suek. "So we're trying to make sure that people don't have to put too much into it in order to be part of it."

Suek also says that her kids know if something happens to her before the co-op arrangement is formalized, the women who live in the home will have the opportunity to buy the house.  The roommates have also discussed what would happen when health fails.

If I have a heart attack I don't want to live alone.- Beverly Suek

"I think we're all in agreement that if someone gets sick we'll help them out," said Suek. "Quite frankly I just turned 70 and if I have a heart attack I don't want to live alone."

"There may be limits around what kind of care we can give one another," admitted Trono. "It's hard to know until you face a situation."

But for now, everyone is healthy and enjoying living in the intentional community. "I love this more than I thought I would," said Suek.  

"It also kind of feels like I'm young again," said Trono. "Because it feels like an adventure. I'm way more comfortable. I just feel at peace."

If you have a story about aging you want to share, contact the CBC's Bridget Forbes at