Opinion: Why We Needs Alternative Choices for Seniors’ Housing

Michael Geller
July 28, 2015


Rarely does a week go by when I don’t have a conversation with someone over 65 on the topic “so where are you going to live next?”

However, I often find that generally open-minded people can become quite closed-minded on the topic of seniors’ housing. Just because they plan to stay in their house until someone “carries them out in a box”, they believe everyone should stay at home till the end.

Conversely, if they know someone who lived comfortably in a small Abbeyfield House, they believe this to be the most desirable housing choice for seniors.

If you are not familiar with Abbeyfield, it is a non-profit housing option for seniors offering the privacy of one’s own living area in a small group living environment. Support services are provided by a house coordinator who manages the building and cooks meals.

Abbeyfield started in England during the 1950s and today there are more than 660 “houses” in 13 countries around the world serving over 9,000 residents. Today in Canada there are 40 societies, 28 houses and 10 more planned or under construction.

Abbeyfield generally appeals to seniors who are capable of independent living, with limited health-care needs. The buildings are often quite modest and relatively affordable, and provide a good housing choice.

However, seniors, like the rest of us, all have different needs and wants. For this reason there is a need to provide alternative housing choices.

While many seniors can happily live in market condominium developments with or without “age restrictions”, recently there has been increased interest in “congregate care” or assisted living facilities. These developments generally cater to those capable of independent living and can offer both rental and ownership tenure, or a combination of both.

One example is Tapestry by Concert Properties, which offers an extraordinary package of accommodation and services. Anyone who has visited their complex at UBC cannot help but be impressed with the overall design, level of luxury and range of amenities.

To be financially viable, these projects generally need to be larger, ideally between 90 and 110 units accommodating single or two-person households. Most residents prefer low- or mid-rise designs. However, there are successful high-rise examples that function very well.

While independent-living facilities are attractive to an increasing number of seniors and their families, there comes a time when many need higher levels of care, especially when suffering from dementia or other disabilities.

Unfortunately, most of us have negative images of nursing homes and other institutional forms of accommodation. Although they often provide excellent care, sadly the poorly administered facilities receive much negative press.

For those needing a higher level of health care, but not wanting to move into a larger facility, there is the Green House Project model of housing.

Like the Abbeyfield homes, the typical Green House Project provides accommodation for 10 to 12 residents and is designed to blend in with surrounding houses and neighbourhood.

Each resident has a private room and bathroom and shares a living room, dining room and kitchen where staff and residents can eat together and socialize. There are no fixed or strict schedules for eating or bathing, like in larger facilities.

Meals are prepared on site, rather than pre-cooked. The staff are “total care workers” and trained to manage a range of daily activities including cooking, housekeeping and health care. There is also a clinical support team that provides individualized and specialized health care for each resident.

Many seniors and their families find the Green House Project model very appealing and would like to see more built in neighbourhoods around Vancouver. However, in order for this to happen, there is usually a need for zoning changes.

One of the challenges facing many senior couples is they do not always age in the same way. One member of a household may be capable of independent living, while a spouse needs a higher level of care.

To accommodate these situations, many developments like Hollyburn House in West Vancouver offer both independent living and care in one building. One simply has to walk from one part of the building to another to visit a partner or friend in the other sector.

On larger sites, private developers and non-profits are creating “continuum of care” campus-style communities offering a range of accommodation from independent living cottages or duplexes, to buildings offering higher levels of care.

As the percentage of seniors in the population increases, we can expect to see a lot more housing and care facility options. We need to speak out in support of new housing choices. After all, one day many of us will be the beneficiaries.

Michael Geller
Michael is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer with more than four decades of experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. Some of his notable projects include the redevelopment of the South Shore False Creek, Bayshore in Coal Harbour and UniverCity at SFU. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and is an affiliate of the UBC Masters in Urban Design program. Michael is a well-known commentator on real estate and housing and an adviser to the City of Vancouver's Affordable Housing Task Force. He is also a past president of UDI Pacific and UDI Canada, and has been honoured as a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Life Member of the Architectural Institute of BC.