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Senior living is about aging in place and social connection

What's important for your housing? To stay in your home, or the same neighbourhood? Or to have plenty of activities and lifestyle options in a congregate living setting?
Beyond basic needs, what do you want your senior years to include? Planned activities, and plenty of social interaction? Photo: Metro Creative Connection

Senior living isn't just about having a place to lay your head at night. The actual housing type encompasses location and neighbourhood, and whether it's a house or a suite in an independent or assisted living complex. But senior 'living' also includes lifestyle considerations like easy access to transport, exercise, shopping and doctor appointments and--most important--social connections.

"We don't talk about it, often until a senior has a health crisis, and then everyone is in a panic and making hasty decisions," said Edmonton 55-plus housing navigator, Jolyn Hall. "People want to be actively engaged in figuring out their next steps, not just waiting for the government to say 'here's your next chapter.'

It's an issue we all should think about (and plan for) while we're younger, Hall says. And the huge growth in the senior population (those aged 75 years and older in Canada are expected to increase 111.2% by 2034) means real estate developers and others involved in housing for the long-term care sector are taking notice.

Hall points to a survey that shows over 95 per cent of older adults want to remain in their homes, yet only five per cent of homes are suitable for those dealing with challenges of aging; (wider doorways, no stairs in the home, for example). Through her site,, and advocacy with places like Age Friendly Edmonton, Hall is part of a growing push for changes to building codes and zoning bylaws.

"What if a neighbourhood four-storey building had a dedicated senior's floor--so they could stay in their own community? We need to support aging in place, however that looks," Hall said, pointing to another example: Her clients, a group of seven senior ladies, wanted to build a large bungalow to share together; something with a large communal kitchen, huge dining room and a double lot with several parking spots.

"In the end, they were told it couldn't be done; the parking bylaw couldn't be changed, etc. It highlights how our communities need to be open to a variety of housing options to support people at every age, in whatever way works for them." 

Social connections are key

In congregate living facilities, the trend is all about community; staying connected with fellow residents and the broader neighbourhood too.

"Especially after COVID, we learned about the impact of loneliness," said Savvy Dave, senior marketing coordinator with Edmonton's Boardwalk Retirement Community. "We understand how important social connection is; and that we must have a plan to maintain it."

The downtown high-rise offers a couple of floors dedicated to senior living suites, with a fireplace tv lounge and daily activities.

"There's a youthful feeling here--you can find residents of all ages working out in the gym, for example, but we also have dedicated activities, from tea parties and games, to exercise and book clubs," added Dave.

"Intergenerational opportunities are huge in senior living trends," said Hall, pointing to things like granny or in-law suites on a family property. Another option is a homeshare-type program (a happening in Eastern Canada, not so much in Alberta), where a senior can rent out their home's basement suite. "It can be low-cost rental for a student in exchange for help with the garden or groceries. Not only does it provide some company for both, it allows a senior to remain in their own home and neighbourhood for a longer time."

The pandemic highlighted other needs in congregate living facilities too, resulting in the idea of seniors living in pod environments with a few fellow residents. Rather than everyone needing to meet all 200 people in their building, meeting or doing activities with the ten whose rooms are clustered together makes it more likely people will bond and socialize.

Social connection is key at Touchmark at Wedgewood in West Edmonton, too. The 55-plus community (which offers a range of housing/care options) recently transformed its lobby into a pirate ship for a day--just because. Lively sea shanty songs, scavenger hunts and even a photo opp with visiting parrot were part of the festivities. 

"We're always trying to change things up so everybody here can live life to the fullest," said Touchmark life enrichment director Pat Davidson.

Hall speaks about the notion of '15-minute communities' the discussion around senior living facilities; a template so a senior can access all their needs within a 15-minute walk of their home, from doctor's offices, to grocery, public transit and recreation paths.

"It's hard to move neighbourhoods at any age, but for a senior who may not be familiar with the new grocery store layout, or who has just lost a driver's licence--these are quality-of-life matters, and staying in an area near friends, activities and family is important."

No longer a 'one size fits all' industry

Senior living facilities have seen a post-COVID drop in occupancy rates.  It's no surprise then, that industry experts and private care homes are offering more perks--things like allowing pets, parking stalls and a new a la carte model that allows residents to choose what they want instead of 'this is what we provide'. Some focus on active living/wellness; others emphasize fun and adventure--a retirement lifestyle akin to resort living with activities and amenities at every turn.

"It's no longer 'one-size fits all' in assisted living or retirement facilities," said Louisa Flinn with Parc Retirement Living. "Maybe you don't need meals, but want housekeeping services. Home providers are becoming more responsive, offering people just the lifestyle supports they want."

Health columnist Dr. Gifford-Jones says factors affecting housing choices will always include healthcare needs, safety, family location and friend groups.

"It’s reasonable to anticipate that boomers will demand enhancements in lifestyle options for their senior years, whether at home or in assisted group residences," he said.


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