Co-op housing design for seniors

Residential needs of retiring baby boomers

I don’t think we really understand the implications the incoming wave of Baby Boomer retirement will have on Canadian cities.

When baby boomers begin retiring in vast numbers and can no longer live in their large single family homes, where will they go? At the upper end of the financial scale, the ones who have successfully prepared and saved during their careers are in good shape; the housing market ensures they have many options (cruise ship meals, programs and living quarters for instance). The lower tier qualifies for government assistance in programs such as rent geared to income or subsidies. Interestingly, the middle group finds itself in the most trouble: many are too poor to afford the comfortable Lifestyle Communities, yet too rich to qualify for the subsidies. Market rents are getting a little too expensive, especially here in Calgary where the influx of workers and low vacancy rate are driving rents higher and higher by the month.

Where will seniors go?

So when my friend Molly approached me a few months ago to ask me what I thought about the idea of converting empty schools to seniors apartments, the conversation quickly took off. Converting schools may have some merit, but it doesn’t effectively address the problem of seniors housing options on a larger scale. We heard first hand, from real people we know, that seniors are scared. Maybe they won’t be able to take care of themselves. They just don’t know what to do or where they will live in the coming years.

The cooperative model for housing

As Molly and I continued to meet and discuss what could be done, we began to meet other people who were convinced that something needed to be done. We learned about something called the cooperative model of housing, where a group of like minded individuals come together to live. They share a little of themselves in order to build community, in the process reducing social isolation that is a trigger for so many health related problems. They participate in the democratic process of operating their little community which gives them a sense of purpose. And they are empowered to create a lifestyle that will allow them to age with dignity and satisfaction. They are able to help their friends care for themselves, prolonging independence before having to go to an extended care facility, which reduces the burden on the health care system.

What does a seniors cooperative look like?

One of the questions we are now exploring is how do we translate this idea into built form? We know we can’t just copy market-driven strategies to squeeze maximum profit out of the available space until we’re left with a bland, sterile shell of a building. We have to go beyond. Instead of bringing a preconceived notion about what a seniors building looks like, we think a good strategy is to start by designing the common spaces where life happens. Where people gather to be in community with each other. The dining rooms, lounges, sitting spaces, meeting spaces, activity spaces, all of them need extra design attention up front. These must be places where people want to spend time. The environment must help them thrive.

Design supports lifestyle

Attention to design elements such as warm materials, soothing colors, access to sunlight, views to pleasant green spaces beyond, scale and proportion that are not overbearing, proper way-finding. Not to mention accessibility, making sure the design doesn’t get in the way of seniors getting from A to B, in the common spaces as well as within each individual suite. And we’ll be looking at sustainability issues – rainwater harvesting for irrigation or toilet flushing; passive or active solar; using renewable and low impact materials wherever possible. And the design of the suites themselves will consider ways to fit more lifestyle in smaller, more efficient spaces, while looking for opportunities to share little-used features like laundry facilities and possibly even bathtubs.

Next steps

It’s great to work with a group of forward thinking individuals who aren’t afraid to ask “What’s possible?” We’ll keep you updated.

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