Although reaching age 100 is no longer news, few Canadians consider where they will be living when they celebrate their 100th birthday, according to numerous informal surveys by this writer.
Canadian demographer David Foot, author of Boom Bust and Echo 2000, has become famous for sharing a powerful demographic secret -- "Each year, you are one year older" -- however, most people still resist thinking about living life as an elder.
The rarely-considered question is, "Where will I live when I am in my eighties, nineties or even over 100 years of age?"
In 1998, 12 percent of the population or approximately 3.7 million Canadians were aged 65 or older -- that's a 57 percent increase from 2.4 million in 1981. In contrast, the population in age ranges under age 65 grew by less than 20 percent in the same period. Statistics Canada projects that by 2041, 23 percent of all Canadians will be aged 65 and over.
Research has shown that people would prefer to stay in their own home as they age, or to "age in place," rather than move into an institution.
The vast majority of Canadians over age 65 – 92.8 percent in 1996 – live at home in a private household.
In the past, elders grudgingly accepted the move from their home into a nursing home or retirement facility because they felt obligated to when "others" insisted they were too old to live alone. Today, Canadians over age 65 are wealthier, healthier and more active than their parents were at 50 and more determined to remain independent.
Baby boomers – the 9.8 million Canadians currently aged 35 to 54 -- are expected to be even more demanding and self-asserting as they age.
Increasingly, people in their eighties, nineties and older will be fiercely-independent individuals who insist on living where they want, the way they want.
The problem? The desire to age in place is not currently supported by the design of houses, condominiums, apartments and communities. Barriers to aging in place are everywhere. Illogical building traditions prevail.
Front entrance steps, staircases, second-floor bathrooms and narrow doorways are ideal only for the agile and physically-adept. Electrical outlets are placed at the traditional height of a hammer handle for ease of installation, instead of being positioned for ease of use.
"Up to now, we have made decisions about where housing is built and what housing is, based on economics – How much to put a pipe here? How much to put a brick there?" says Russell Mawby, Housing Facilitator for the City of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. "Our current pattern of urban development and building has not been addressing the whole question -- the quality of life. Although there is a lot of talk about seniors being served by housing, seniors are being asked to adapt themselves to the housing that is being provided."
Housing and urban development policies are based on statistics from the generations that lived through the Depression and two World Wars. The fact that "active living" is still seen as a lifestyle niche rather than a fact of life is evidence that stereotypes from past generations are restricting housing choices for today's seniors and for Canada's emerging elders.
"We only make policies based on what we know and what we know is the past," said Mr. Mawby. "All policies from all levels of government are felt most keenly on the streets where we live. We need to find a way of measuring policy outcomes, not just in abstract terms like money and [property] value, but in a meaningful way that relates to human needs.
"We know that most of the housing built is not capable of supporting home care. It's not even ideal for families with strollers and people carrying groceries. We have built a sea of homes for mom, dad, two kids and a minivan, but how healthy will that development be when those homes are not needed that way anymore?"