Seniors’ Advocate Puts Housing First

“Seniors’ Housing:  Affordability, Accessibility, Availability…We Can Do Better” puts the issue squarely at the forefront in this recently released report by B.C.’s Seniors’ Advocate Ms. Isobel Mackenzie.

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Stating that she is “building on my commitment to evidence-based decision-making,” Ms. Mackenzie undertook research and gathered data from all over the Province that focused on income levels, rental housing and home ownership for seniors.  Her conclusion was unequivocal when she states “I found that for low and moderate [incomes] for seniors in this province, there is a real and genuine need for more support in meeting their basic housing costs.”

It was surprising to learn that “half of B.C.’s seniors live on $24,000 per year or less and greater than 50,000 seniors are living on $20,000 or less.”  This clearly defies a common belief that most seniors are financially comfortable or well off and do not require a lot of additional support.  The report goes on to say that “these are incomes that will not rise and many costs related to declining health care are not covered for many of our poorest seniors.  Some seniors are making ends meet by either living in substandard housing or foregoing other basic needs and no one wants to see this happen to our seniors in their final years.”  I completely agree.

While undertaking her research into this report, Ms. Mackenzie asked at each step three key questions (Seniors Housing, Executive Summary, page 3):

  1. Have we done everything we can do to make this affordable?
  2. Have we done everything we can to ensure that this is the most appropriate place for seniors to live?
  3. Have we done everything we can to make this housing option available to seniors?

Ms. Mackenzie then explores issues related to three primary forms of housing in which we find B.C.’s seniors currently living:

  • Independent Housing
  • Assisted Living
  • Residential Care

Independent housing options for seniors include owning a home or renting.  According to this report, these housing types for seniors are appropriate provided they are affordable.  Other factors, such as health and mobility, access to nearby services, the presence of a caregiver and assurances that the home environment is safe, mean that seniors can reside in their own home with the proper supports in place.  But for low and moderate income seniors who want to remain in their own home, affordability and availability appear to be the real challenges.

Assisted living options in B.C. include “publicly-funded Registered Assisted Living, private-pay Registered Assisted Living, and private-market assisted living residences.”  The challenge for seniors wanting this type of community living arrangement is the regulation that determines eligibility, with the result that many seniors may be prematurely placed in residential care.

Residential care is better known as long term, nursing home or facility care, for seniors who suffer from a variety of health challenges, such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, physical disabilities or other complex care challenges that prevent them from living in other less secure and supervised housing types.  The report suggests that while residential care may be appropriate for the majority of seniors currently placed, “5% to 15% of current residents could be living in the community either with home care services or in assisted living.”

The report goes on to make a total of 17 recommendations for systemic change in these three housing categories, some of which involve regulatory and legislative changes and others that recommend design, practice and financial changes that would make housing options more affordable, accessible and appropriate for B.C.’s senior population.  Ms. Mackenzie concludes that “it is clear that many low and middle income seniors, both renters and home owners, need to have more financial help in meeting their basic needs.”  For other types of housing (assisted living and residential care), Ms. Mackenzie stresses the importance of creating and providing facilities that “offer the privacy and dignity they [seniors] deserve.”

In a municipality such as Oak Bay, many of Ms. Mackenzie’s observations resonate.  Having served this community as a former Council member and now as a volunteer, I am aware that there are many seniors living in Oak Bay who have low or moderate incomes and face the increasing burden of home ownership or high rents on a fixed income.  Oak Bay also lacks appropriate housing options, including affordable rental housing, that would enable many seniors to remain in the community that they know and love and where family and other supports exist.

A further concern faced by Oak Bay seniors and residents generally, is a significant seniors’ demographic in the face of static or net losses to our population growth.  This dynamic poses a key question:  how will our community continue to maintain, let alone enhance, existing community programs and services through tax revenue, when our population is shrinking and aging, with greater numbers living on fixed incomes?  With this year’s Oak Bay tax increase an unprecedented 5.1%, it foreshadows difficult choices ahead, for both our seniors, other residents and our municipality.  We should ask:  Is Oak Bay at a tipping point because of this perfect storm of static population growth, an aging demographic and rising taxes?  Will Oak Bay as we know it now be sustainable in the future?

Oak Bay, like many other smaller communities, must now grapple with the reality that some of our seniors who wish to remain living in our community, may be at risk of having to move outside Oak Bay to find affordable, accessible and appropriate housing choices.  Sooner rather than later, our local government should start the conversation with Oak Bay seniors to determine how best to tackle current and future housing needs, especially in light of the anticipated implementation of Oak Bay’s 2014 Official Community Plan.  Mayor and Council should begin the process as soon as possible with Step 1:  Developing A Housing Strategy.

Stay tuned and to read the Seniors’ Advocate’s report in full, please visit