'We're so far behind': Canada unprepared for housing needs of rising senior population

Older workers see job gains, while market tightens for the young

As the number of seniors continues to grow, experts say Canada is failing to prepare for the housing and home care needs of an aging population.

"We're so far behind where we ought to be, given we know these trends are happening and we've known about these trends for the past 20 years," said Mark Rosenberg, geography and planning professor at Queen's University and the Canada Research Chair in development studies.

Statistics Canada 2016 census figures released on Wednesday revealed that the country recorded its greatest increase in the proportion of seniors. The increase in the number of seniors, who now outnumber children, could have implications on future policy making, in particular the housing needs of the elderly.

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In a 2015 report, Future Care for Canadian Seniors: A Status Quo Forecast, the Conference Board of Canada estimated that by 2026 over 2.4 million Canadians age 65 and over will require paid and unpaid continuing care support — up 71 per cent from 2011. By 2046, this number will reach nearly 3.3 million. 

As well, in just over a decade, the number of seniors living in a retirement home, supportive housing, or a long-term care home will grow to over 610,000, according to the report.

If current patterns hold, by 2026 Canada will need an additional 131,000 spaces for Canadian seniors, growing to an additional 240,000 spaces by 2046.

Demand growing faster than supply

"This growth will require significant public and private sector investment in building the infrastructure to meet this demand," the report said.

Currently, demand for different types of housing is growing faster than supply, Rosenberg said.

"So that's one example of how we know we're failing," he said.

Provincial governments put more money every year into home care services so people can stay in their homes, he said, but "we also know that virtually everywhere, demand for those services is outstripping what the provincial governments are prepared to supply."

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According to the Conference Board of Canada's report, demand for home care services will increase at a projected 3.1 per cent annual pace until 2026. But growth in home care employment is only projected at one per cent.

When it comes to seniors being able to stay at home, "the ultimate challenge is around human resources," said Louis Theriault, vice-president for industry strategy and public policy with the Conference Board of Canada and one of the authors of the 2015 report.

As for long-term care facilities, many seniors are on wait lists for years. For example, in 2012–13 in Ontario, 34,312 individuals were on a wait list for their preferred choice of a long-term care residence, the Conference Board of Canada found.

Too often, some of these facilities are crowded with people who don't necessarily need around-the-clock support and could have remained at home, Theriault said.

"But there's no other place to put them, because there are no extra resources in the system to make sure that these people can stay home," he said.

System bound up

Granger Avery, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said that too many seniors are languishing in acute care beds in nursing homes, at vastly increased costs, preventing access to someone else who really needs that type of care.

"That's one of the reasons our system is bound up," he said. "Most important is [a] co-ordinated plan between home care, community care, long-term care and acute care, and in most places around the country we don't really have that and we really should."

Wanda Morris, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, said the health-care system is designed to deal with acute disease and fairly quick death, instead of individuals who are living with one or more chronic conditions, sometimes for years or even decades.

She said there needs to be some rethinking about how long-term care facilities are constructed, with the goal of providing more private spaces that accommodate smaller groups of people.

"We need to get out of providing places that warehouse or institutionalize our elderly and infirm and have places where they can live their golden years with some dignity, even if they are dealing with significant health issues."

Rosenberg said there also needs to be greater thought put into rezoning commercial property no longer in use so it can be repurposed as residential buildings for seniors. He said that in Kingston, Ont., for example, a former shopping centre has been turned into a complex with a drug store, fast food outlet and a set of residential buildings and apartments for seniors.

"It's being marketed to relatively wealthy and healthy older people, but there are lots of cities that won't do this kind of rezoning," he said.

"There are some private sector firms who see this as an opportunity. How do we find other groups who can do the same sorts of things for the part of the older population that aren't healthy and wealthy," Rosenberg said.

Role for technology

But to keep seniors in their homes, technology, including robotics and artificial intelligence that can aid senior residents, will need to play a significant role, said Theriault. 

"Technology matters very much. Over time technology can be … the deciding factor whether you stay at home."