The Right Homes for Seniors

Blog written by Judy Shepalo



On September 12, 2019, panelists on The Agenda discussed the issue of appropriate housing for seniors:

Link to video:The Right Home for Seniors.

Link to TVO transcript: The Right Home for Seniors Transcript.


Dr. Samir Sinha, Director, Geriatrics,Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto

Zayna Khayat, Future Strategist For Homecare and Adjunct Professor  At The U Of T’s Rotman School Of Management

Cheryll Case, Founder and Principal of the Urban Planning Firm – Cp Planning

The following is a summary of the conversation that took place.

Some seniors are living in houses that are too big and difficult to maintain. Others can’t find suitable and affordable stock that allows them to downsize. And others still need new services and amenities that their neighbourhoods simply don’t have.

A recent CMHC report found seniors are staying in their family homes longer and downsizing later than in earlier days. Their housing might not be the most appropriate for their needs or finances but the CMHC report also shows there are not a lot of good options available in their community.

There are an estimated 5 million empty bedrooms in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The housing supply isn’t reflecting the needs of the population and is a symptom of a system that is not responding to current needs. Where seniors are not downsizing, it is often because they don’t have options in their neighbourhood.

“Home” is a feeling and we all want to be home; it’s the place in which you live but it’s also your neighbourhood, your community. People will want to stay in their own homes close to a familiar park, stores, church, neighbourhood, perhaps community group. They don’t want to have to leave an entire community behind.

Life expectancy in Canada in 1900 was 51 years; now it’s 82 years and if a person makes it to 65 they will have an 20 additional years of life expectancy. Some seem to think, “How dare they live so long and successfully and stay in their own homes.” The Toronto Star, reporting on the CMHC report, headlined an article with, “Toronto seniors clinging to their homes may spell doom for young buyers, CMHC report says.” Seniors are in fact not clinging to their homes but rather unable to move because of a lack of suitable options. We need to honour and respect the choice of older people as to where they want to live and age, and their ability to think through for themselves what the best decision is for them right now.

Intergenerational housing is gaining some momentum but can be challenging because of municipal zoning bylaws, for example, trying to convert a detached house into two separate units.  Laneway housing is one solution to intergenerational relationships where young and old can live on the same property. The Halton HomeShare Program allows home owners and home seekers to live in shared, affordable and mutually beneficial accommodation.  Extra bedrooms can be advertised to young people for below market rent in exchange for lawn mowing, household tasks etc. The program’s success in Halton has been emulated in Toronto and other regions. A young person can save money for a house purchase and be part of community they want to be in that would otherwise be too expensive.

An 85 year old widow living in 4 bedroom house with 3 extra bedrooms might not have other options; this is not the woman’s issue, it’s the system. If she requires assistance but doesn’t want to go to retirement residence or nursing home but there’s no other way to deal with her health issues than to sit in the local hospital ALC (alternative level of care), then that’s a problem.

The preferred solution is to allow her to age in the place of her choice while at the same time being supported to live independently and as safely as possible and within her economic needs. The 85 year old widow, like many others, finds there is no option to age in the place of her choice.

In fact, many people are “overhoused” with more space than they require, not just older people.

Policies that work in the framework of age friendly communities will include city planners, when  building new neighbourhoods, ensure there’s mixed use accommodation. We can also look at other creative approaches such as co-housing policies and home sharing programs and permission to divide up our houses to more easily accommodate multi-generational families or other multi-family possibilities. These are not mainstream policies but can lead to NORC – naturally occurring retirement community.

We need government incentives to build senior focused condos using universal design principles – space, size of hallways, wide doorways (32 inches wide for wheelchairs), modular ability to adapt space as needs evolve, services that surround the building.  Most condo developers still focus on aesthetics but smart developers thinking ahead will focus more on universal design principle and market to people who are planning on living there for a long time.

Toronto council is looking into “missing middle development”, a term coined by the architect Daniel Parolek to describe “a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.”

How do we create communities that are inclusive for people who want to age in place?

Thanks to the four women in Port Perry who challenged the local municipality’s attempt to prevent them from owning and living in a house together, the province is considering passing the Golden Girls Act whereby “all levels of government should recognize that Ontario has an aging population and should encourage innovative and affordable housing solutions for seniors. Local municipalities should not deter seniors from choosing affordable housing options and should recognize that unrelated seniors living together can reap significant health, economic and social benefits.”

One of the problems is that local municipalities have different policies; instead, what is an equitable policy we can have so that people have access to different housing types in their community? We need to be creative, provide support if a home renovation is required, think about how we provide home and community services and a mix of housing options so that seniors can age in the place of their choice.

Longterm Care as well as home care in the home is becoming unaffordable and inaccessible.

This panel on TVO highlights the challenges of finding the right homes for older people and the importance of moving now on multiple fronts to provide better alternatives for seniors who are over-housed and perhaps socially isolated.

Blog written by Judy Shepalo