Metro Vancouver seniors population set to skyrocket; communities grapple with housing dilemma

METRO VANCOUVER – Everything Jean Lambert needs — the shops, the church, the seniors’ community centre — is within 20 minutes of his house in Maillardville. Even the retirement home is just a block away.

Not that he plans to move there anytime soon. Not while he can still drive and sing with his band, the Jammers. And after all, he is only 87.

“Most of the people I know, they still like living in their own home, for independence mostly,” Lambert said. “If you go to a seniors’ home you have to do what they do; it’s their schedule, not yours.”

Lambert has lived in Maillardville for 55 years and is indicative of a growing number of people in Metro Vancouver who are aging “in place,” most notably in their own homes or, at the very least, in the same communities where they grew up and raised their families.

But with the senior population set to explode in the next 20 years, Metro Vancouver municipalities are grappling with how they can provide enough affordable accommodation to serve an increasingly older generation. In 2006, about 14 per cent of B.C.’s population was 65 and older, but it’s estimated that seniors will comprise nearly 25 per cent of the province’s population by 2032.

Those figures have led municipalities to review their official community plans — reports that guide development over a period of time — to ensure there’s enough affordable condos, seniors’ residences, rental units and secondary suites and laneway housing to accommodate the changing demographics across the region.

“Those services are beginning to grow as people age,” said Judy Villeneuve, a Surrey councillor on Metro Vancouver’s housing committee. “There isn’t a glut of senior accommodation.”

Metro Vancouver HousingCorporation owns and operates more than 50 rental housing sites, providing housing for more than 10,000 people, but Villeneuve said the stock is decades old and expensive to maintain.

She insists there needs to be more options, particularly for seniors who may be on pensions or limited budgets, and is calling on senior governments to change the tax policies to ensure more rental facilities are available.

“It’s too bad in some ways that there are no federal programs for co-ops,” Villeneuve said. “There’s a real market being missed for women in their 70s who don’t need full care but should be in an environment where they can get care when they need it.”

One of the latest trends across the region is a drive toward more laneway, or coach housing. Vancouver and North Vancouver City are among the biggest proponents of the smaller units, which can be built above or next to a backyard garage and often act as mortgage helpers, while allowing aging seniors to stay on their property longer while having a family member or caretaker living nearby.

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart said he envisions more coach houses in Maillardville, where many pioneers still live on large half-acre lots. But he concedes the city must also look at other alternatives, noting its Town Centre is becoming a bastion for empty-nesters who want to downsize.

“In older neighbourhoods we’re trying to be more creative than Vancouver and other jurisdictions; we’re trying to make sure there’s a wide range of housing,” he said.

But Villeneuve noted just having housing options isn’t enough: they must be affordable. Many seniors stay in their homes longer than they should, she said, because there’s nowhere else to go. Rental units are often too scarce or cost too much and sometimes buying “small accommodation is as expensive as the home they’re leaving.”

Some retirement homes, she added, cost upwards of $5,000 a month, including meals and care.

But, for some, that’s the price of staying in their communities.

Lambert acknowledges if he and his wife must leave their home, they would move into the nearby Belvedere Retirement Home. But, at $4,500 a month, it’ll be costly.

“We intend to stay here,” said Lambert, who has five daughters, 11 grand-children and seven great-grandchildren. “[Maillardville] is in the middle of everything.”

Lindsay Milburn, housing manager for Senior Services Society, noted if seniors have money, they can always find themselves a spot in a care home. But there’s a dearth of subsidized housing options for low-income seniors, many of whom are living on apension of $1,100 a month and can’t afford rents in places like New Westminster or Vancouver.

Those who need assisted care face even more challenges, with a two-year waiting list for a spot.

But money doesn’t always buys contentment. In North Vancouver District, empty-nesters are finding themselves saddled with big homes and property taxes or are forced to move to another community because there are no other options, Coun. Alan Nixon said.

But things are looking up, after the district in October approved a building permit for a contentious 11-storey seniors’ highrise proposal for Mount Seymour Parkway, which would provide 150 spaces.

Nixon said he’d also like to see more co-housing, noting he rebuilt his parents home years ago to give them their own suite while his young family had a separate suite downstairs. “Things are different now and we have to be ready to embrace change so people can stay in the community they’ve lived in for 20, 30, 40 years,” he said.

Surrey, which allows coach houses in certain neighbourhoods, is taking a different tack by allowing more secondary suites. The city has thousands of illegal suites in multi-unit monster homes.

About 45,000 people, or 12 per cent of Surrey residents, are now 65 years of age and over. But that’s expected to rise as the city’s young families grow older, putting demand on the city for more affordable housing.

For Lambert, not even a recent spiel from a funeral home director will get him to move from the house he loves. But, one day, he concedes, he won’t have a choice: “I don’t intend to live forever.”

Source: The Vancouver Sun

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