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Seniors' housing providers failing customers

Believe it or not, the cruise ship industry is an extremely popular assisted living provider, according to the managing editor of Over 50s Housing Journal.
Esmonde Crawley, the managing editor of Over 50s Housing Journal, gave the keynote speech March 5 at a Health Sciences North forum on designing a more senior-friendly community. Photo by Heidi Ulrichsen.

Believe it or not, the cruise ship industry is an extremely popular assisted living provider, according to the managing editor of Over 50s Housing Journal.

Cruise ships are able to provide seniors with an affordable lifestyle “that doesn't remind them of their frailty or their age,” something they find immensely attractive, Esmonde Crawley said.

“They move boats, cruise lines and hemispheres, and itineraries, but they essentially live on boats as perennial guests,” he said.

“Go over to Vancouver during cruise season and just sit on the end of a bollard every afternoon, and watch three or four ships disgorge up to 10,000 white-haired people, and another 10,000 take their place.”

Crawley, who gave the keynote speech at a March 5 Health Sciences North forum on designing a more seniors-friendly community, said the cruise industry has discovered what many other seniors' service providers haven't — seniors want to enjoy their lives.

“It is simply that as an industry, we've failed to truly understand our customers,” Crawley said.

“We just made assumptions about what we believe they need, when in fact they've been too frightened ... to be honest about their real needs.

“The next generation is going to really shake the industry up. Surprise — nursing homes and care facilities will have to really rethink their product delivery, or if they don't, go out of business.”

Setting aside the cruise industry, Crawley gave examples of several other innovating seniors' housing complexes that are meeting their clients' needs.
As an example, he pointed to Bentley Priory in London, England.

Although not developed specifically as a seniors' complex, large numbers of older adults moved in. Why? Because they wanted to live in a place connected to history and the priory served an important purpose during the Second World War.

He also brought up the case of a developer in the United States who looked at the demographics and realized that five per cent of all Americans are grandparents who have custody of their grandchildren.

“He went and bought a block of land next to a school, and upon that land he built two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments,” Crawley said.

“He built a playground and a paddling pool, a computer room and a rumpus room. Then he sent out the invitations to come and have a barbecue. In three hours on a Sunday afternoon, he either sold or leased all the apartments.”

He said there are dozens of sub-markets developers are ignoring — for example, the parents of disabled children.

While purpose-built seniors' housing has the potential to meet many needs, about 85 per cent of Baby Boomers say they want to stay in their homes as they age, Crawley said.

He speculated this means long-term care facilities are only going to be able to continue operating with their current model for another five to 10 years.

Much of what Crawley said resonated with 82-year-old Hanmer resident Eva Mazerolle, who gave the opening address at the event.

“It was very, very interesting,” she said. “I liked some of his ideas of grouping seniors together and getting all the services, and enjoying life together.”

Even though she and her husband still live in their own home, she said socializing with other seniors through their local Golden Age Club has been very important to them.

They move boats, cruise lines and hemispheres, and itineraries, but they essentially live on boats as perennial guests.

Esmonde Crawley,
managing editor of Over 50s Housing Journal

“If one day I can't, I hope I will find a place in a seniors' home where I can have some activities, not just staying in my room and doing nothing,” she said. “I want to be busy doing something.”

Terrance Galvin, the founding director of Laurentian University's school of architecture, also spoke at the event.

He said Sudbury's own Finlandia Village is known around the world as a model of “aging-in-place housing.” The complex offers a variety of housing options, from townhouses to assisted living to a nursing home.

But more seniors' housing options need to be provided, Galvin said.

“Mr. Crawley has shared several anecdotes about the kind of experiments that happen,” he said.

“But from a critical point of view, it's quite sad that the shipping industry is the one that has to provide answers to housing rather than the architectural and planning and development community.”

Because Baby Boomers all want to stay in their own homes, Galvin said it's incumbent upon architects to design houses with a “flexible” design, so they can be changed to adapt to seniors' needs later in life.

Unfortunately, not many architects are doing this, he said.

Kris Longston, a senior planner with the City of Greater Sudbury, said a wave of aging Baby Boomers is about to break and the city needs to be ready for it.

According to Statistics Canada, those over age 65 made up 15.9 per cent of the city's population in 2011. This will grow to 22.1 per cent by 2026.

Even though the city's population has decreased from 170,000 in the early 1970s to the current 160,000, the number of households has increased from 45,000 to the current 65,000.

This means fewer people are living in each household, which means less urban density and more difficulty with providing support services for seniors, Longston said.

He gave an example of how the Regent Street area, which has high urban density and many different types of housing and services, is ideal for people throughout their lives because they never have to move out of their neighbourhood.

Another solution to keep people within their neighbourhoods is the construction of “granny suites,” or a second building on a lot put up for elderly relatives, which city bylaws allow for.

Longston also examined the phenomenon of surplus schools being converted into housing. Many schools were built in the 1950s when the Baby Boomers were children, but these schools are no longer needed, he said.

In many cases, developers are turning them into apartment complexes, which is beneficial, because it means older adults don't have to move out of their neighbourhoods if they sell their homes.