What kind of housing is preferred by older adults and seniors?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
February 05, 2016
Tags: seniors
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Tammy M. via our latest website survey: How many homeless or at risk older adults are there in Canada? In Ontario? What are the most preferred housing options chosen by older adults/seniors?

Last July, Statistics Canada reported that 5,780,900 (or, 1 in 6) Canadians are now over the age of 65. Our aging population is growing and currently outnumbers Canadian youth. The Atlantic provinces are seeing a much higher percentage of older adults, while the prairies and territories are seeing the least.

Working from 2011 census data, the Ontario Ministry of Finance estimates that in 2013, Ontario’s senior population was somewhere around 2.1 million, and that it will more than double by 2041. This is already having an enormous impact on our economic and social service systems, forcing everyone within to re-examine how we secure housing and services for older adults and seniors.

Older adults, poverty and homelessness

In the housing sector, an “older adult” is anyone over the age of 50 – much younger than the government definition of “senior” because marginalization, poverty and homelessness contribute to premature aging. This definition is not used by Statistics Canada or most other ways of accounting for older adults who may be at risk, which contributes to a lack of knowledge about this population.

What we do know is that seniors and older adults are vulnerable to homelessness because they often face deteriorating social support systems, increased mental and physical health needs, and financial constraints all at once. These complex needs often mean that our standard emergency responses to homelessness – shelters and transitional housing –are rarely appropriate for older adults and seniors.

According to the Canadian definition of homelessness, being at risk of homelessness refers to those “who are not homeless, but whose current economic and/or housing situation is precarious or does not meet public health and safety standards.” While it is impossible to accurately determine just how many older adults are at risk of homelessness – due to gaps in data and inconsistent counting - we can look to some existing studies to give us an idea.

While we don’t have a definitive number on seniors and older adults who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness, we have some general estimates. A 2014 Statistics Canada report concluded that 600,000 Canadian seniors are living in poverty – huge risk factor for becoming homelessness. In the 2014 State of Homelessness in Canada report, 0.9% of senior participants said in a survey that they had at some point, experienced homelessness or housing insecurity in their lifetime. (A total of about over 1.3 million Canadians said the same.)

The report also draws attention to people who are precariously housed – due primarily to affordability issues – noting that 19% of renter households fall into the “extreme” category: paying more than 50% of their income on housing. With such a small remaining budget to work from, all it often takes is a relationship breakdown, a lost source of income, and/or a health issue to put someone at risk of homelessness. Many older adults are precariously housed, or in extreme core housing need.

Preferred housing for seniors and older adults

Older adults and seniors become homeless for a variety of reasons and they all have unique needs, so there is no one type of preferred housing – though many want to remain as independent as they possibly can. This is why “aging in place” is so important.

A recent report from the Office of the Seniors’ Advocate in British Columbia found that seniors were most concerned with housing being affordable, appropriate, and available.

If living in their own house or apartment with home care is no longer possible, the next logical step would be to move into assisted living. This offers continued independence but with some support and socialization. What I found however, was that, as a result of out-dated regulations, many seniors were being denied the ability to stay in assisted living and were being pushed into residential care before it was clinically necessary. When residential care is required, seniors deserve as much as possible to be where they want to be and to enjoy the privacy of their own bedroom and bathroom. While there is some very good residential care in this province, there is more that needs to be done to fulfill our commitment to allow seniors to live where they want as independently as possible.

The report categorizes main housing options as being independent, assisted, and residential care styles of living; and makes a number of recommendations specific to British Columbia in making each type of housing more affordable, appropriate, and accessible – because it isn’t about finding a “perfect” housing option for all seniors and older adults, it’s about finding what is best for each individual person. Below is a breakdown of all the current types of housing that older adults and seniors are living in the province. (Note that those experiencing homelessness, transitional or otherwise, are captured under "or other" and amount to less than 1% of the measure population).

Seniors accommodation type in BC

According to a 2002 Health Canada study, 75% of seniors considered their housing “ affordable, adequately sized and in good condition.” Whether they live with spouses, family, alone or in institutions varies greatly – with more people living in institutions as they age. And many housing options (such as living with family or a spouse) heavily depend on individual circumstances (economic situation, physical and/or mental ability, family support, etc.).

There are also big differences between older adults who are chronically homeless and those who are newly homeless or at-risk of homelessness. The researchers of a 2004 Toronto study further underscored this in their report:

The chronic older homeless appear to be ‘aging in place’ like most Canadians. For the chronic homeless this is evident, where the condition of homelessness becomes normalized over time, and they spend many years in the shelter system in their lifetime. On the other hand, for newly homeless older adults, factors such as a lack of affordable housing, and a lack of appropriate supports to ensure their successful transition into housing, may affect their ability to age in place.

While there is a small supply of non-profit and subsidized housing stock available in most major cities – which can be excellent options in Housing First frameworks - these are not appropriate options for older adults with extremely little money and/or with different physical or mental abilities. There is a greater need for prevention, more appropriate emergency housing, and more supportive, long-term housing. The same researchers recommended the following for older adults at risk of or experiencing homelessness:

  • Age-segregated programming and housing
  • Intensive case management to help older adults be connected to the services they need
  • Small-scale emergency shelters that are age- and gender-segregated; especially for older women
  • Additional supportive and long-term housing with integrated health and social services (harm reduction, palliative care, long-term care, onsite nursing).

Many studies have recommended similar approaches to housing for older adults, indicating that flexibility and choice in housing is paramount. Jones, in her 2007 report on the role of supportive housing for seniors in Ontario and British Columbia, advocated for cross-sectoral partnership for supportive housing education, awareness, operations and planning. She also cautions against substituting one type of housing for another, as all play essential roles in the housing continuum for older adults and seniors.

We must also consider the different needs of Aboriginal older adults, who tend to be more impacted by marginalization and poverty and have distinct cultural needs. As I wrote in my post about homelessness and senior women:

In their report on Aboriginal seniors experiencing homelessness, Beatty and Berdahl recommend establishing long-term care facilities in major prairie cities and on reserves; as well as funding initiatives for Aboriginal caregivers. Indeed, more publicly funded long-term care for all Canadian seniors—like those created in Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland—would be beneficial for all, and would help relieve some of the financial stress on our seniors.

It is also important that we begin to move away from a system that focuses on emergency response and one that looks toward preventing homelessness. This will require coordinated efforts between social service, health and housing agencies and ongoing outreach to older adults who are at risk.

For more information about seniors and homelessness, read our past posts:

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Emma Woolley is an undergraduate student in York University's Social Work program, with a background in publishing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing and homelessness, progressive approaches and care in mental health, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is a widely published freelance writer, with a large portion of her work focusing on gender issues within digital culture and technology. 

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