Experts say more affordable and accessible housing is needed for Canada’s aging population with seniors over the age of 85 reported as the fastest-growing age group in the country.

The latest census data from 2021 shows that since 2016, the number of people aged 85 and older grew by 12 per cent, more than twice as much as the overall growth of the Canadian population at 5.2 per cent.

The number of people over 85 more than doubled since the 2001 census, and is expected to triple by 2046, raising questions about who will care for that generation and where they will live.

“Canada is as old as it has ever been and it’s only going to get older,” Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of CanAge, Canada’s National Seniors Advocacy Organization, told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.

Without a national strategy, Watts says seniors will have few housing options as they age unless Canada implements more affordable living scenarios for seniors.

“We also don’t have seniors as part of things like our national housing strategy, only a little bit about help for rental markets, but nothing about care of seniors,” she explained.

More than one in four seniors in the 85-and-older age bracket currently live in a “collective dwelling,” such as a seniors’ residence, nursing home, long-term care residence or hospital, according to the census.

Experts say the proportion of elders living in those settings only increases with age, as more than half of centenarians receive care in one of those facilities.

However, wait-lists for long-term care beds scan stretch on for years, leaving seniors stuck in hospitals or families struggling to care for their loved ones at home.

Watts noted the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important long-term care, assisted living and care at home is for families and communities.

“When it comes down to it, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves, because unless there’s big changes, the health-care system won’t be able to do it for us,” she said.

University of Ottawa housing and social policy expert Carolyn Whitzman says the federal government’s housing strategy needs to narrow in and look at who specifically needs housing.

“We really need to focus not just on overall supply, but more on the right supply. I’m particularly concerned about low income with single seniors who simply can’t afford growing rents,” Whitzman told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.

Whitzman said there also needs to be more support to help modify one’s home to make it more accessible with age, as well as more uptake in personal support worker jobs.

“There’s the need for not just more congregate living, more accessible apartments, but also the right kind of services so that people could stay in their homes as long as possible, which is both economically sound and for social and health reasons absolutely the way we should be going,” Whitzman said.

She added that Canada may also have to get creative in how it cares for its elders over the next decades, such as programs that offer aid to build a secondary suite in one’s home so that young people can live with and help look after the senior.

“Renovation loans so that younger people could move in — because young people have affordability issues as well — and not do formal caretaking, but just keep an eye on the older person living there. So that would be a great, cheap intervention, Whitzman said.

Despite the average home price in Canada continuing to rise, Whitzman said the cost of living means seniors can no longer solely rely on selling their home for retirement.

“Part of the issue is that we’ve put so much weight into homeownership as a retirement savings plan instead of having other investments,” she said.

Whitzman said governments need to address the issue of affordable housing for seniors now before the number of people over 85 triples.

“Older people think that if they sell their home, they’ll have enough money to live the rest of their lives in comfort and dignity,” she said. “But until we build the kind of housing where seniors can live in assisted care with comfort and dignity, there’s not going to be alternatives to staying in a house that may be too large for you or not accessible until it’s almost too late.”

With files from The Canadian Press


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