Community Care

Students & Seniors: A Solution to Canada's Housing Crisis

Jules Roebbelen
,
March 15, 2019
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With a rapidly growing elderly population, Canada is working hard to encourage independence in seniors through new intergenerational and social initiatives. While Canada remains one of the best and safest places to live in the world (5th best and 6th safest in 2018), problems continue to arise among two major demographics striving to maintain the “best and safest” housing situations.

  1. Skyrocketing housing prices make it almost impossible for a single person to live on their own. With a current 3% rental vacancy rate, the number of apartment and housing rentals continue to decline, and new builds are far out of budget for most single and young people. This is especially difficult for international students who may not have friends or family to live with, and who often default to unsafe neighbourhoods due to their affordability.

  2. Elders and seniors living alone. While many want to maintain their independence and remain living at home for as long as they physically can, sometimes it no longer makes sense for single or widowed seniors to live alone. They can still drive, cook and look after themselves, but there is the all too real possibility of a slip on icy steps, a mild stroke or a sudden heart attack. Routine maintenance costs of a house and everyday chores often become too much for a single person living off a retirement fund. It pains us to see elders in our community moved into semi-assisted nursing homes or retirement homes when they are capable of taking care of themselves, but feel they should not live alone for safety and financial reasons. While they aren’t physically or emotionally ready to give up on the home and community they have lived in for decades, they so often find themselves without other options. Safety is the top issue for seniors living alone, but there are also increasing reports of the negative effects of loneliness on the aging population.

A CBC article states "In Ontario, more than half of residents — and three-quarters of those over the age of 65 — live in houses that are bigger than they need, leaving five-million spare bedrooms across the province, according to a 2017 report by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis.”

5 million spare bedrooms. It is logical for the single homeowner to put their 4 bedroom home up for sale in this housing market, but what if they’re not ready to move into a semi-assisted care facility? The term “nursing home” may feel like the inevitable death sentence to an able-bodied but financially strained senior. The stress of being put on a waitlist for a long term care home, added to the stress of selling their family home can be overwhelming, and quite often unnecessary for another decade.

So here is the problem. An increasingly aging population with room to spare, and an increasing number of young and single people hard-pressed for affordable accommodations. Addressing the housing needs of seniors without compromising their independence has called for some creative solutions.

A beautiful and genius solution has been created through the idea of home sharing. These programs connect a young or single person in need of accommodation with a senior in need of a little bit of care at home. This provides affordable housing for a person while allowing the senior to remain living at home, maintain their independence and get help around the house. Suddenly, a 95 year old woman has a roommate who is a 26 year old grad student. By helping with cooking, cleaning and other household duties, she can live at home without fear of forgetting to take her medication or falling without someone coming to her aid. In many cases, they become friends. They run errands together. They watch movies together. They laugh together. Not only is there now a peace of mind financially and physically, seniors are presented with more opportunities for social interaction, something that all too often decreases over time, leading to unhealthy levels of isolation.

The Netherlands are seeing the benefits of intergenerational retirement homes, where students can live rent free in exchange for 30 hours a month of “hanging out” with the seniors, a task that the staff and professionals may not have time for. Seniors can learn computer skills or play games together, and while students are able to pay off tuition without incurring large amounts of debt, they are also learning invaluable lessons about life from the elders in their community. In a similar vein, Alberta's Mount Royal University has an English program partnered with a Calgary retirement home. The university elects a “writer in residence” from the young students to live among the seniors for a semester, documenting the life stories of the residents. The student receives free rent as well as a university credit, and the families of the seniors are gifted with a beautifully written biography of their loved one.

Trial student & senior housing programs have sprung up all across Ontario. Each party experiences reduced feelings of loneliness and increased levels of security and companionship. Students have a safe, quiet and affordable place to live and study while the senior has companionship and help with daily chores. There are many cases where the two continue living together for many years and consider one another as part of his or her family. These are beautiful success stories of helping seniors maintain their independence while they are still able to almost fully take care of themselves.

Of course, this isn't the solution for everyone.

A senior may not be willing or able to invite a student to rent a room in their home. Still, there is a growing trend of seniors expressing a desire to stay in their homes rather than moving into long term care homes. With the help of community services such as Meals on Wheels and Friendly Visiting, seniors can maintain their independence while getting a little help with housekeeping, food preparation and social visits.

If you are looking for more information on home sharing programs, we encourage you to contact your local community care access centre or Local Health Integrated Network.

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