ARCHIVED: Section II: Highlights of Focus Group Discussions: Age-Friendly Rural and Remote Communities: A Guide – Housing
Focus group discussions of housing underscore the importance of enabling older people to remain independent for as long as possible. The ability to live independently in one’s own home depends on a range of factors, including good health, finances and the availability of support services (such as medical and personal care). Many older persons feel that they could continue to live in the homes they have inhabited for years or decades, but under certain conditions. For example, the availability of help with housework, gardening or repair work could enable seniors to remain in their homes.
“Taxes are high and the fuel bills are scaring them. Quite often they keep their heat so cold that they only turn the heat up when they know someone’s coming. They have the sweater and the coat on, the shawl over their shoulders. The doors, they have a quilt wrapped at the bottom to stop the draft from coming through.”
“If you’ve got a couple that’s living in an older home, if both of them are collecting old age pensions, they don’t qualify for a grant. I work for people all the time trying to get them grants and that really annoys me. Because both of them are on old age pensions, they probably have incomes of $21,000 to $22,000, so if they’re $1,000 over, they can’t get anything.”
Many older persons own their own homes. Seniors’ houses tend to be older than those owned by younger Canadians. A variety of costs are higher for older homes—including those related to maintenance and utilities. While some seniors recognize that their older homes are not functional for an aging person, they may not be able to afford the upgrades and adaptations that would improve living conditions. Lack of indoor plumbing was an issue raised in one community. In another, the reliance on woodstoves was discussed and the problems that ensued when older persons were less able to chop and carry firewood. Some discussion participants noted that volunteers help older seniors with these tasks, either informally (good neighbours), or as part of an organized community volunteer service. The biggest financial barriers facing seniors who want to remain in their homes appear to be related to heating and home maintenance costs.
Design problems were another frequently mentioned barrier. While a number of participants are aware that government grants or subsidies are available to older persons who need to retrofit parts of their homes for accessibility and mobility, information about these federally or provincially administered programs does not appear to be well known. In other cases, participants expressed frustration with the process of accessing such support. As one service provider suggested, eligibility criteria sometimes exclude people who could clearly benefit from subsidies to upgrade their homes.
Focus group participants felt that when it is time to move from their homes, they want a range of options that provide a continuum of care. Those who can afford to purchase a new home talk about the need for more small homes or condos to be built. Others are less interested or unable to commit to buying a new home and seek an apartment.
Rental housing typically includes single detached houses, townhomes, duplexes, secondary suites or small apartment buildings. New rental housing is not always economically feasible in most rural markets for several reasons, including small local markets, risky economic conditions and a limited construction industry.
Everything that’s being built here and in other communities is condos for very comfortably-off people."
“Can you even get a mortgage? That's another thing—can you get a mortgage as a senior?"
“I think everybody’s looking for that intermediary step between, you know, coming from home and going into a lodge. You know, you live on your own, but you’ve got assistance. You’re not looking after your own house, but you’re not being totally cared for in a facility."
In addition to wanting an “in-between" housing option between a large family home and an apartment, older persons in the focus groups expressed that they are also looking for more assisted living options, described by one older focus group participant as an “intermediary" step.
The availability, choice and cost of housing for people as they age is clearly important. Focus group results show that even in communities with a range of independent and assisted housing options, most experience shortages in some options.
Lack or shortage of long-term care options was also cited as a significant barrier for older persons in rural and remote communities. While involuntary spousal separation was identified as a very unfortunate outcome of the shortage of some types of housing in some cases, having to leave the community to access long-term care was discussed as a more common situation.
Summary of Key Findings
The focus group discussions highlight a number of housing-related issues and potential opportunities for consideration in rural and remote communities across Canada:
Age-friendly features include . . .
- Availability of affordable apartments and independent living options
- Availability of affordable (including subsidized) housing
- Availability of supports so people can remain at home
- Availability of assisted living options
- Availability of condos and smaller homes for sale
- Availability of long-term care options
- Close proximity to services
Barriers include . . .
- Affordability, especially with respect to general maintenance of homes—heating bills, service bills, repairs and upgrades
- A lack of supports to enable seniors to remain independent
- Poorly designed housing, including features that reduce mobility
- A lack or shortage of housing options for older people—including those that support assisted living, independent living and long-term care
Suggestions from participants for improving age-friendliness . . .
- Provide a continuum of care in the community—from home care to assisted living to facility care that is well-coordinated.
- Develop an “intermediate" level of housing between independent living and fully assisted care.
- Make available apartments of different sizes to accommodate couples who want to stay together, and for those wanting more (or less) space.
- Ensure that new housing is adaptable to seniors and those with disabilities.
Older persons want to do more than simply continue to reside in their communities—they want to be able to contribute to, and benefit from, community life. Active and involved seniors are less likely to experience social isolation and more likely to feel connected to their communities. These connections are particularly important, given the strong linkages between social isolation and health. While social isolation tends to increase as people age, communities that promote social participation and inclusion are better able protect the health of their citizens, including those who are socially isolated.10 Research also shows that one of the factors associated with feelings of loneliness is a feeling of lack of respect. Like social isolation, loneliness can have a negative impact on health.11
Focus group discussions point out that, in general, older persons in rural and remote communities are treated with a great deal of respect, kindness and courtesy by all generations—a view shared by both older participants and confirmed by service providers in the groups. Even though several service providers observed that retailers and customers become impatient with seniors who may move at a slower pace, very few participants expressed dissatisfaction with the way that older persons were treated and included in community life. In fact, most said that older persons were included, consulted and made to feel a part of the community, with several attributing this to the “small-town" philosophy of rural or remote Canada.
“They (seniors) need to feel that they’re still a vital part of the community."
“I think we have a very strong recognition that our seniors are the basic membrane, a fundamental meshwork that helps us be the community that we are. And there isn’t a soul that I interact with that doesn’t understand that or savour it."
"I think that’s an unspoken kind of philosophy of living in a rural area here, being invited or asked or consulted."
Discussion results point to some cultural differences in how older persons were shown respect. For example, one participant spoke of how calling older persons “Mr.” or “Mrs.” was common practice in the community. A participant from another community (with a large Aboriginal population) remarked that calling an older woman "Auntie" was one of the highest forms of respect. In yet another community, the older persons label themselves, and are referred to by others, as “elders” rather than seniors. This was attributed to the fact that the community had a "mixed" (Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal) population. While it was suggested by at least one participant that younger people were sometimes perceived as being somewhat disrespectful because of the informal way in which they addressed seniors (i.e., not using "Mr." or "Mrs.")—others assumed that this was more a lack of "education" rather than disrespect.
“I think it’s something that’s happened from learning from our First Nations neighbours because in First Nations culture elders are really respected. In fact, they’re necessary to keep the culture alive, and living in a community next to them we’ve kind of learned that.”
“If someone’s not there, someone’s looking at why. You know people have noticed if they are missing or not around and someone’s over right away. There’s a really huge neighbour looking after neighbour component here, and people are really interested in what’s happening to each other.”
Participants from all parts of Canada offered numerous examples of intergenerational respect and interaction, many originating in the schools. Intergenerational activities provide opportunities for older adults to interact with younger groups—allowing them to pass on knowledge, traditions and skills. Focus group results also show that communities demonstrate their respect and appreciation of seniors through many and varied events and awards that recognize or celebrate older persons. Such events as "seniors dinners" were cited frequently as recognition events—others mentioned include community memoirs that capture the stories of seniors.
Some participants suggested that one acceptable way to show respect is to acknowledge and accept that not all older persons wish to be active in the community.
The serious issues of elder abuse, or neglect, were noted during discussions of the challenges family members and other caregivers face. Service provider participants identified the importance of and need for providers to be taught/trained in how to support families in challenging circumstances.
Despite the efforts of individuals and communities, isolation of older persons exists and persists in rural and remote communities. Such isolation is often, but not always, the result of health or mobility issues. Older adults and service providers identified that the reason some seniors are lonely is the changing times in which we live—characterized by neighbours being "just not as neighbourly" as before. Nevertheless, it is clear that, in some communities, much effort is made to reach older persons who might suffer from isolation—whether by ensuring that older persons have been invited and included in community activities, or by merely taking note when older persons do not show up at an event at which they were expected.
Summary of Key Findings
Discussions about respect for seniors and the importance of preventing social isolation pinpointed some ideas about what constitutes an age-friendly community, as well as barriers and suggestions for improvement on these fronts:
Age-friendly features include . . .
- Respect, kindness and courtesy—including across generations
- Accommodation including outreach
- Feel included, consulted and part of the community
- Events or awards that recognize seniors
Barriers include . . .
- Health or mobility issues that lead to isolation of older adults
- Disrespect, ageism or elder abuse
- Older persons not always heard or seen
Suggestions from participants for improving
age-friendliness . . .
- Provide opportunities for intergenerational activities and events—don’t isolate older people.
- Provide support to families in challenging circumstances to help prevent elder abuse.
- Make younger people aware of aging issues and the importance of treating older people with respect—consider offering seminars on what it’s like to be older.
- Start an honorary grandparent program—it can provide a focus for intergenerational activities and contact in the community.
- Promote positive qualities of aging and older people (instead of focusing on the negative).
- Put in place a "community memories" program in a local museum (or promote those that already exist). The older phase of a life is an important one that can be captured and kept through stories.
- Consider establishing outreach programs, such as the "telephone assurance" program that is being used in some communities.
- Develop and support key outreach measures—the voluntary and informal transportation networks that are so vital to ensuring that older people who lack transportation options are not isolated.
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