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Senior Living Spaces: Know Your Options

Keeping aging couples together still challenging Albertans


When it’s time for a couple to transition from their home to a place where both individuals’ needs are best supported, where does one begin? Because, for Albertans who have worked through this process, trying to make sense of the options out there can frustrate one to tears.

“It’s all daunting, difficult, emotional and confusing,” says Greg Christenson, President of Christenson Developments. “Couples don’t deteriorate in health at the same time and the government system is not set up for couples. Yet ironically, that’s the most affordable way to house people.”

Alberta’s senior housing market falls into two primary sectors – government subsidized and private free market housing. Compared with other Canadian provinces, Alberta has one of the stronger product offerings, but there’s work to do.

Lodges offer affordable independent living, but generally no onsite care other than conventional scheduled home care. Typically, studio or one-bedroom apartments with communal dining, the cost is priced at 30 per cent of the resident’s monthly income. “While it’s affordable, it’s not considered particularly appealing,” says Christenson. “Average rent can sit as low as $500 per month. But, housing costs are typically higher when a couple is separated, paying rent and meals for two households instead of living together and often caring for each other.”

The province also turns to designated supportive living units (DSL) to support maturing people needing care. Under this program, the resident covers an accommodation cost while Alberta Health Services (AHS) assesses the needs and then funds care for the resident, which can cost approximately $3,500 per month. “It’s not insignificant, but the customer doesn’t see that bill,” says Christenson. “That covers rent for what’s often a studio apartment and includes three meals a day in communal dining, weekly housekeeping, laundry and some recreational programming.”

When it comes to long-term care, some Canadian facilities currently have four people in one room, ruling out couples dwelling together. Furthermore, wait lists mean couples are often separated according to different healthcare needs and placed into different regions around the city. “When people get to that point, they and their family members often enter it with no knowledge of the options, often suffering great frustration as they are trying to adapt to changing needs and rigid government programs.”

Christenson wants government websites, information and communication for seniors that outline all the choices for families, including government, not for profit and private market options. “It should be a database of what’s available on the Alberta marketplace. Why can’t we have all this information available through one source?” he says.

A strong advocate for aging in place in a residential community with improved models of 24-hour site-based homecare available, Christenson believes in building urban villages through densified nodes. Creating choices in multi-family housing with shops and parks in walking distance is one solution he sees for the future. “Then, we’re able to offer many choices of housing and service, including some government subsidized; many more amenities and homelike features such as kitchens, balconies, in-suite laundry and more of what the consumer is looking for,” he says.

Christenson Developments’ villages, like Sherwood Park’s Emerald Hills Urban Village and Centre in the Park, offer choice in housing types all concentrated around a park and include popular amenities. “Fundamentally, there’s socialization naturally occurring around those public amenities,” says Christenson. “We have choice in tenure too. People can rent or buy a condominium or use our Life Lease program to reduce their rent.”

With more options, couples can achieve their desired mix of privacy and social activity, especially where units are spacious enough for two. There’s meal availability and home care options. “We offer choice in our communities for dealing with the stress of aging, but we also try to refer people to the best alternative, even if it’s connecting them with a competitor,” says Christenson. “We empathize with the families trying to gather all the information.”

At St. Albert’s River Ridge by Revera, Executive Director Barb Howell values keeping couples together in ways that support individual desires. “Before we move anyone into our building, we spend a lot of time with the individual or the couple, often doing home visits. It allows us to assess their needs, ensure we’re the right fit and ease the family’s transition,” she says.

On a recent visit, Howell met Natalie Jordan and Bill Elchuck. Natalie was ready to move away from simply coping with the demands of living in their home, while seeking more social activity. Bill, 100 years-old, was digging in his heels.

“When moving day arrived, I wasn’t entirely sure he was going to move with Natalie, but she was coming one way or another,” says Howell. Discussions focused on how to give Natalie access to recreational programming, exercise and socialization yet fulfill those needs knowing Bill was safe and happy at home. The couple is doing well since moving in.

“This gentleman who had barely made eye contact with me through this process jumped at the opportunity to have his photo taken for this story and wanted to be sure he looked his best,” says Howell. “I’m having lovely chats with them. Natalie’s telling me how much she loves the food, she’s able to come and go and it’s removed a tremendous amount of stress. It’s been so good for their relationship.”

Revera operates in a private model with AHS support for retirees to receive care, convenience and comfort through this transition. AHS assigns a case manager for residents to determine their needs and the hours are delegated back to River Ridge’s own clinical staff, including LPNs and health care assistants, to perform the care. “The flexibility we have as a private operation means if a person wants to privately pay for more services than the government can offer, they can purchase those services over and above,” says Howell.

Residents can be accommodated on either River Ridge’s independent living side with bachelor-style to two-bedroom, two-bathroom suites or in the more secure memory care unit. Some couples thrive moving into the separate wings with the ability to connect daily, relieving a spouse caring for their loved one with dementia-like challenges.

Programming based on physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing is included in residents’ monthly rent. There’s also a strong culinary department, housekeeping and maintenance support. “We’re here to support the couple in a way that promotes an appropriate level of independence for them, and also to provide as much care as they need,” says Howell. “Many families approach these transitions heavy with guilt. It’s like they’re taking something away from their loved ones. Our job is to support and minimize the roadblocks.”

An early-timed proactive approach is important, especially in avoiding a fall or other injury and easing the transition. “When we see families who have been managing yet struggling, it’s a beautiful thing to see them thrive in transitioning into this kind of environment and community,” says Howell. “They have the support they need so they can flourish.”