By Kristen Frisa

With a growing population opting to age in place, the time is ripe to address the trend

We are living longer than ever. That’s mostly good news—but not for the housing crisis. As of the end of 2022, Canada was home to approximately 13,500 centenarians, 43% more than in 2018, according to Statistics Canada. Environics Analytics notes that as of 2023, seniors made up 19.3% of Canada’s total population, compared to just 8% in 1971. Environics’ Senior V.P. and Chief Demographer Doug Norris, who has been calling this one of the most significant demographic trends in Canada for years, told CTV News in December that the “numbers are now at extremely high historical levels.” 

Verve Senior Living ‘s The Islington coming in 2027 will feature an array of high-end amenities.

A November report from CMHC, Understanding the Impact of Senior Households on Canada’s Housing Market, highlighted a further issue: an increasing number of people are living in larger homes than they require. “Health and wealth” among that segment, coupled with a supply shortage in the market, is encouraging the elderly to stay in their homes, the report observed. The impacts of COVID-19 on long-term care homes only exacerbated the trend.

This means that builders and designers have an increasing opportunity to help aging residents find the housing they need—be it with thoughtful in-home improvements or by producing more attractive senior-friendly facilities to entice them out of the comfort of their homes.

Aging-in-Place Design

Catering to seniors who choose to age in place, the Canadian Home Builders’ Association (CHBA) has developed the Adaptiv Home course to help contractors understand the needs of aging residents. The course includes information about building codes, specific adaptations to help seniors, and how to talk to them about those needs. Since the program’s inception in 2022, 160 have completed the course. And registration is continuing to grow, with a considerable wait list for the next program offering.

“More and more of my customers are retirees. That was the biggest reason I decided to take the course and to try to understand the Adaptiv approach,” says Chris Smith, CEO of Woodsmith Construction. “I wanted to understand what is involved in creating a universal design for the house and planning for retiring in place.”

CCR Build + Remodel shows how accessible designs need not be sterile.

It’s not only builders taking the course. Realtors and designers have attended too. “We’re trying to create a network of professionals in this space from all across the country,” says CHBA’s Sarah Caron, who helped develop the course. “That way, participants have peers, but also people in different fields that bring a different take on home modification.”

The course has also received interest from energy advisors who visit homes regularly to complete energy assessments. Recognizing needs within the home, they can refer partner contractors who can then complete the work.

To develop the Adaptiv curriculum, CHBA worked closely with the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapy to understand clients’ short- and long-term challenges as they age and how to adapt their living environments safely to cope with those challenges.

“The course contains really specific building knowledge, including the primary areas that need to be considered, like entrances, kitchens and bathrooms, where we spend so much of our time,” says Caron. “Can we ensure that those are safe for the occupants? Can they get to different levels of the house via safe transition areas?”

Smith says a lot of the focus he has seen in homes is on improved lighting, especially around stairs, and stair safety in general.

The Adaptiv course covers more than just the nuts and bolts of creating homes in which people can age in place. It also features modules that cover the empathy and sensitivity needed to discuss future needs with people who don’t necessarily want to have that conversation. “It’s better to prepare and design rooms so that if assistive devices need to go in later, you’re not ripping stuff out and starting again,” Smith advises. While installing supportive bars in a newly renovated bathroom can be a difficult sell, measures like reinforcing drywall in places that might need grab bars in the future can be done in advance without impacting the aesthetics of the building. 

Smith considers Adaptiv and suite renovations to be a huge emerging opportunity for contractors. Many of the aging population have money to spend and seek solutions that serve their needs and style of living. “They don’t want it to look like a hospital wing or an old age home,” he says. That’s why when residents are ready to add assistive devices, Smith attempts to keep things unobtrusive to maintain the interior style of a home, with such things as fold-down benches and hidden grab bars where they don’t disturb the line of sight.

Smart Investments

Although making it easier for aging residents to remain in their homes and communities can help maintain overall well-being, it often leaves a mere one or two homeowners in a house that far outsizes their needs. But for residents who have extra space, basement or upper-floor apartments can provide financial opportunity, Caron notes. “We can help people recognize that if you’re not using your whole house, we make the part that you are using as safe as possible while freeing up other parts that could be rented.” This can also help offset some costs associated with renovating and living on a fixed income. 

And keep in mind that while renovating is never a cheap option for your client, neither is retirement living. 

“People think of an elevator as one of the most expensive pieces of equipment to install in a house. But the cost of an elevator may only be four to six months of living in a retirement home,” Caron notes. “It may be a matter of changing how your clients think about it, because while it’s expensive to renovate, it’s about making their house accessible forever.”

And think long-term. “It’s about creating an ongoing relationship with your clients,” Smith advises, noting that he’s helped some clients buy a starter home, put on additions when the family grew, and finally provide aging-in-place renovations. 

“Have a plan for current and future renovations. The client base of the future is going to require and demand these types of services, so it’s better to get familiar with incorporating them to keep them well served.”

Emerging technologies can also help seniors maintain their independence through voice- and sensor-activated systems, avoiding them having to use low, out-of-reach switches that require fine motor control, Caron says. “There’s an entire industry for home automation, including everything from motion sensor lights to programmable thermostats.”

But technology and renos should be used on an individual basis and monitored for effectiveness, rather than prescribed across the board, Caron stresses. “There’s no one-size-fits-all renovation. What the Adaptiv course tries to emphasize is that renovations are based on individual needs.”

Making Senior Living Healthier 

Few know how to cater to those needs quite like Linda Kafka, one of Canada’s leading architects and designers for living in place, accessibility and wellness in the residential sector. A principal at Livable Environment Inc., Kafka teaches designers, contractors and community planners about the impact of living spaces on our emotional well-being.

 While advocating for more inclusive designs to be adopted across the board so that nobody is unable to live in a home purely because of its design, Kafka also stresses that retirement living needs to provide a healthy social setting for those who decide it’s time to leave home. Part of that entails access to the outside and their neighbourhoods and communities to maintain emotional equilibrium. 

Approaching senior living more like hospitality than real estate, Rockport Group has developed three senior lifestyle residences across the GTA that facilitate that community involvement while surrounding residents with a style to which they’ve become accustomed. “People have beautiful homes and gardens and lots of seating and places to host their families,” notes Rockport COO Daniel Winberg. “Unless senior living residences have these things, those people aren’t going to want to move.

“The biggest concern we have with the senior population is loneliness and a lack of things to do,” Winberg says. “We’ve created places where they can have a wonderful community, where they’re going to be engaged, have friends, have programming, and do outings. We’ve worked to give seniors a wonderful new phase of their lives.”

Rockport’s facilities offer a sizeable ground-floor space with amenities like swimming pools, gyms, salons, demonstration kitchens and licensed bistros. Designers have made concerted efforts to make spaces more open and comfortable so that residents can enjoy their families and foster a sense of community. A new addition to the Unionville location is a snack bar that stays open around the clock, providing food whenever the mood strikes rather than being restricted to set mealtimes. In other words, the buildings attempt to feel more like home.

“It’s not about having high-end, luxury facilities,” Kafka says. “We need facilities that are more in sync with their residents’ needs.” 

Rockport Group stresses attractive amenities for senior living.

But what if you could have both? South of the border, Watermark Retirement Communities has been challenging the status quo in senior living. “Innovation permeates everything we do, from designing our spaces to caring for residents to creating experiences in our communities that aren’t available anywhere else,” the company notes. Apart from several upscale properties, the resources of its facilities impress, including Accushield (a fully automated health safety screening and visitor management kiosk), a technology concierge offering expertise and one-on-one tech support for smartphones and other smart home devices, VR headsets for interactive experiences, LifeLoop (an online communication and engagement platform that works with the iN2L touchscreen system), the BrainCafé to sharpen cognitive abilities, smart exercise equipment that’s easy-to-use, a 360Well coordinator who develops and manages comprehensive health and wellness programs, and circadian lighting designed to align your surroundings with your internal clock.

In Canada, facilities such as Delmanor Retirement Living in Ontario and B.C.’s Tapestry Retirement Communities offer residents the opportunity to maintain independence and individuality, cook in fully equipped kitchens and explore personal hobbies, while providing individual assistance as physical and mental needs progress. Verve Senior Living is following that transitional senior living model with two Toronto projects slated to open in 2027, and another in Burlington in 2028.

Calling it an evolution in senior housing development, The Islington will border on The Kingsway and Islington Village in Toronto. It combines a retirement residence experience with ground-floor retail. And the number of amenities is off the chart, including BBQ and pizza oven stations, billiards, a bistro/bar, bocce ball court, fireplace lounge, fitness studio, golf simulator, library, pet wash station, salon/spa, swimming pool, theatre room and wine lockers.

The Park, meanwhile, will be a first-of-its-kind for downtown Toronto, with a mixed-use, continuum care retirement residence. Located on Wellington Street West, it will offer easy walking access to retail, services and green space. Just west of downtown Burlington, Verve plans a retail redevelopment on New Street.

“The exteriors are designed to be more modern and have multiple outdoor terraces, balconies, etc.,” notes Linda Tittel, Verve’s Ontario regional director of sales and marketing. “Suites are designed to be larger, and in some cases we plan to develop buildings with three-bedroom units. Residents will have in-suite laundry, and some units contain full kitchens. Suite finishes are similar to a high-end condo—solid countertops, tile in washrooms and backsplashes, hardwood floors, and contemporary millwork, plumbing fixtures and appliances.

“It’s about feeling like you’re at home,” Tittel says, “and not a seniors residence.”


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