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We have to find ways of increasing community connections for seniors

Opinion: Surely now is the time to choose a bolder path — one that intentionally weaves urban planning together with social and healthcare services for seniors

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With seniors expected to represent 27 per cent of B.C.’s population by 2038, we are facing the very real potential of multiple crises: in housing, health care and diminishing community connections.

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Today, 20 per cent of people aged 85-89 live in seniors’-specific dwellings, a figure that doubles by the age of 95, and Statistics Canada projects the number of people over 85 could triple by 2046.

This has been brewing alongside the pressures of migration and urbanization for decades, resulting in increasing life expectancies that aren’t necessarily coupled with a higher quality of life. The impact is already being felt daily by aging individuals and their families, as they face the painful truth that it simply isn’t feasible for many seniors to grow old in their community.

As a non-profit operator of long-term care homes and affordable housing sites, it’s clear to me that the current business of caring for seniors outside of the organic community is one of an unsatisfactory compromise. Every day, I witness the lack of interconnectedness between health care, housing and community, as we attempt to navigate the compromise that is seniors’ care. It’s my responsibility to make a home for diverse seniors, who have the right to be cared for in ways that honour them, their individuality and their culture.

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Simultaneously, I am responsible for running efficient organizations, funded with public money, which provide safe and equitable workplaces for health-care workers who do this essential and difficult work.

We have advanced so quickly in so many areas of our common lives together, surely now we have to find ways of better ensuring dignity of care for seniors, and create more age-appropriate environments, while also achieving operational targets and managing other tensions? Do we really want to settle for a compromise that is barely palatable, or is there another way?

Now is the time to choose a bolder path — one that intentionally weaves urban planning together with social and health-care services for seniors. It’s complex, of course, but without a clear decision to do better than accepting the compromise, we will continue to fail those who we long to honour.

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We must urgently start designing and building communities to address this problem, and we need to get them started now.

Our long-term care facilities can become innovative mixtures of apartment-style units that have home-like environments. We can serve hundreds of residents in these small apartment pods without the institutional feel. Noise can be managed and there would be a lack of busyness in the living areas, something especially important for people with dementia.

Staffing and workforce elements, like nursing stations, can be done at the back-of-house, and we can still reach that all important economy of scale. Further, we can make these facilities local hubs for excellent home care, where more localized and personalized services can be given to seniors both in and from the buildings in their community.

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As the City of Vancouver continues to consider many widespread renewal and rejuvenation plans, it is essential that we seize the opportunity to advance integrated housing complexes that have options ranging from independent seniors’ living through to residential care.

In an area such as False Creek South for example, where the Broadway Group operates Broadway Lodge, a complex like this — a campus of care — would provide not only options, but alternatives for some of the 2,000 (and counting) seniors, who comprise more than one-third of the residents in the 40-year-old community nestled between Cambie and Burrard bridges.

If we dream even more, we can envision this continuum of seniors’ care surrounded by housing for families with children, deliberately creating intergenerational exchanges that contribute to better mental health and happiness, while staving off loneliness.

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It’s long past time for frank conversations about how we actively and intentionally build for better seniors’ care. Let’s work together now to ensure that seniors can be more appropriately housed, and let’s look to proven non-profit partners to fast-track supportive housing and public care homes that keep seniors safer, healthier and more comfortable.

Please, let’s do it now, before it’s too late. The urgency of the situation is already upon us.

Simon Neill is CEO of The Broadway Group, a collection of three care and housing non-profits in the Lower Mainland.

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