A Healthy Alternative to Seniors Housing

The sedentary lifestyle of seniors living in retirement homes is making them age more quickly, according to a study published in the Canadian Journal on Aging. The report states that seniors' homes are built to keep residents safe but eliminate too many of the physical tasks of everyday life. Walking and climbing stairs have been replaced by effort-saving golf carts and elevators. Many residents do not need to cook or do housework. The effects of this inactivity are accelerated deterioration of joints and muscles and greater susceptibility to illness for those living in care facilities as opposed to caring for themselves.

"Physically challenging aspects of the environment, such as stairs, should be included in the design of living spaces for the elderly," write Kathy Shipp and Laurence Branch, the two U.S. researchers who conducted the study. "Our concern is that the current trends in design for specialized housing for the elderly ... may be over-supporting many residents."

The authors, both researchers at Duke University in North Carolina, examined the health of seniors in the U.S. and Canada. One test involved asking residents climb up and down a flight of stairs. "When confronted with this environmental demand, many of the participants commented on the fact that since moving into the retirement community they rarely had to use stairs and consequently they had noticed that negotiating stairs in other settings was increasingly difficult."

According to Health Canada, as of 2001, seniors make up 12.3% of the population. Approximately 5% of Canadians over 65 live in long-term care homes, compared with more than half of all Canadians over 80. Unfortunately most homes do not have enough staff to ensure residents are exercising on a regular basis. The options for many seniors are limited: one in five Canadian seniors live in a low-income situation. In 1998, 20% of seniors had incomes below Statistics Canada's Low Income Cut-off.

The quality of care at many facilities has suffered from decreased government funding and it is expected to get worse. By the year 2030 all the baby boomers will be 65 years or older and many of those will require extended care.

The dilemma for many seniors and their families is how to avoid the pitfalls of these facilities and remain as healthy as possible. One option, independent living, may be difficult for many seniors. There could be concerns about household accidents or a sense of isolation. Another option, living with the family, has it's own set of problems despite the fact that many people do it. Canadians spent 435,172 unpaid hours per week caring for the elderly according to the 1996 Census, the latest national census produced by Statistics Canada. An extended family under one roof can create a great amount of stress especially if there are young children underfoot. Also, if basic chores are done for the senior member, they may be no more active than they would be in a care facility.

The best compromise for everyone may be a garden suite-a small, self-contained home added to the lot of an existing house. This type of separate suite allows healthy seniors to enjoy their privacy and independence and still benefit from having relatives nearby. The suite can be warm, comfortable and most of all close to assistance and family affection.

The typical design is a portable or prefabricated one-storey, one or two-bedroom unit without a basement. It is possible to lease these units and they come in a variety of styles.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the federal housing agency, has long been in favour of this type of housing. In 1989, they held a garden unit demonstration, which led to government projections of 213,000 families potentially interested in a garden suite.

One warning, however: check with your local municipal government before you invest in a garden suite. Zoning bylaws may prohibit additional suites on your property. The main concerns of local government can be that the suite will be used for the non-elderly, potentially adding to already crowded street parking or school systems. The temporary nature of this type of housing helps to circumvent some zoning restrictions.

A few creative variations on the basic idea include:

  • a grandchild may be able to afford a house with a grandparent's financing in exchange for a suite
  • a retiree and his family may jointly purchase a property with the provision that the retiree will have a suite on the property
  • a retiree can retain ownership of the property and move into a suite while the kids and grandkids use the house if they pay the property tax and utilities.

In order to maintain independent living in a garden suite, it may be necessary at some point to get some outside assistance. Preparing meals and buying groceries can be taxing chores for some seniors. Proper nutrition is crucial to the health. If the person lacks the energy to cook there are some solutions. Today there are many companies, which can provide meal services and grocery delivery. If you have teenage children they may also want to do some of these chores themselves for extra income. This type of work can teach responsibility and provide valuable experience.

Home care provided by qualified nurses may also become necessary. Local hospitals and family doctors can usually recommend qualified caregivers. Home cleaning services may also be beneficial.

Another important aspect of independent living is socializing. Aside from being involved in the family, seniors can benefit by spending time with their peers. Local community centres often have activities especially for this age group.

Technology can also make living independently much more fulfilling. With some instruction, many seniors can begin to use the Internet and e-mail. These can become a source of entertainment and a connection with the outside world.

Having an elderly family member close by can be a wonderful experience for everyone. Sons and daughters can finally get to know the parent they spent years rebelling against. Children mature by leaps and bounds by helping out and spending time getting to know their grandparents.