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166 Bedford Highway, Halifax, N.S., B3M 2J6  donald.shiner@msvu.ca

Project Description

As the Baby Boomer generation moves into older age and the proportion of seniors within Canada increases, it is clear that we need to address the housing needs of very different age cohorts. However, when this project began, little was known about the housing needs and preferences of seniors, nor was it known how these needs and wants would impact our society. As we age, available choices for living arrangements may narrow as we become less able to cope with the everyday demands of living. Some people will be reasonably healthy and have sufficient financial security to live where and how they want, but many will not. This research program is designed to build a detailed picture of aging Atlantic Canadians and their potential living arrangement needs over the next 20 years.

Studies on seniors’ housing needs consistently report that seniors prefer to remain in their own homes for as long as possible. They also want to make their own decisions with respect to their needs and lifestyle. Seniors say that the benefits of aging in place include a feeling of independence and control, feelings of safety and security, being near family, and having familiarity with their surroundings. Major barriers to aging in place include the inability to maintain property, followed by inadequate finances, illness, the need for safety and security, and inadequate family support, and transportation options. To overcome these barriers, creative housing initiatives are needed.

For aging-in-place initiatives to be successful, involvement and input of all levels of government, policymakers, housing developers, support services, communities, and most importantly, the involvement and input of seniors is needed. Aging-in-place initiatives must also take into account the diversity of situations and needs of seniors given differences in age, ability, economic status, gender, rural/urban status, housing situation, culture, and personal preference.

Decisions made by seniors choosing from an array of housing options are directly related to health and income status. We need to be able to describe and predict these variables accurately for the senior population. Furthermore, health and income will vary considerably across geographic regions, between men and women, and between attached and unattached seniors. An article in Canadian Social Trends described the measures of four states of health: dependence-free, moderate dependence, severe dependence, and institutionalized dependence. Each of these states of health and their relationship with housing options are presented in the following table.

Table: States of Health and Potential Living Choices for Seniors

Dependence –free/ Good Health Individuals who do not need assistance, with the possible exception of heavy housework, and who generally live in single family or multiple-unit housing, either rented or owned.
Moderate Dependence Individuals who need assistance with meal preparation, shopping, or everyday housework. Home care may be provided within their private residence by family caregivers and/or paid care providers.
Severe Dependence Individuals who need a high level of support, including assistance to move about or for their personal care. They may continue to live in their own home with significant support or may move into an assisted living facility or seniors retirement residence.
Institutionalized Dependence Individuals whose very high level of required assistance usually dictates that they reside in a nursing home or other institution where they can receive extensive support and specialized care.

Source: Canadian Social Trends, 2000

The article also notes some important differences between men and women in the way they age. In 1996, a 65 year old male could expect to live another 16.1 years, with 3.4 years in some state of dependency, while a 65 year old female could expect to live another 20 years, with 6.5 of those years in one of the dependent states. Furthermore, the analysis indicated that, of those aged 84 and older, 65% of males and 75% of females would spend their remaining years in some state of dependence. Males and females will spend approximately 15% and 20% of this time institutionalized, respectively. Currently, we can expect males, on average, to move into a dependent situation when they are 77.7 years of age, and females when they are about 78.5 years of age. These health state factors can be used to estimate the percentages of males and females that would seek different types of living arrangements at specific points in time.

The Survey of Financial Security asked a sample of Canadian families and unattached individuals about the value of their assets and the amount of their debts. The total value of the assets, less the debt, is referred to in this report as "net worth". When looking at those 65 years of age and older, the report concluded that senior families (in which the major income recipient was aged 65 and older) had the highest estimated net worth of any type of family unit ($302,900), in part because many live in their own mortgage-free home. In 1991, Statistics Canada estimated that 60% of those aged 65-79 owned their home without a mortgage and this dropped to 48% for those 80+. This should not be interpreted to mean that all elderly families have relatively high income. The relationship between income and net worth does not hold for those 65 years of age and older. The median after-tax income of elderly families was, in fact, lower than for most other families of two or more. Therefore, seniors' net worth is a more a reflection of previous income and purchases rather than of current income.

Another important conclusion of the Survey was that the Baby Boomer cohort had higher net worth than their parents did at the same age. Furthermore, A Portrait of Seniors in Canada reported that the average income of people aged 65 and over in 1994 was 16% higher than in 1981, once the effect of inflation had been taken into account. In contrast, in the same period, there was almost no change in the average income of people under age 65. Much of the increase in the incomes of seniors has been accounted for by increases in employment-based pension plans, both public and private. This means that there will be an increased demand for supportive living arrangements financed by the individual over the next 40 years, such as purchasing personal care services or assisted living facilities. As well, the rising incomes of seniors have led to a decline in the proportion of people in this age group with low incomes. Between 1980 and 1994, the percentage of Canadians aged 60 and over considered to have low incomes decreased from 34% to 19%. Despite this overall decline, levels of low-income remain relatively high among unattached senior women, 53% of whom lived in a low-income situation. Thus, any examination of the housing needs of seniors must be addressed separately for each demographic cohort. We propose to use the health and wealth factors in combination with detailed demographic information to produce geo-demographic predictions through 2026 for our aging population.

ASHRA specifically examines the housing needs of seniors in Atlantic Canada. This region differs from the other regions in Canada in three main age-related aspects. First, the Atlantic Provinces have seen a higher rate of increase of the senior population compared to the rest of Canada. Only a decade ago, the median age for the four Atlantic Provinces was lower than the median age for the nation. By 2001, the median age had increased above the national average, largely as a result of continuing out-migration. As these trends continue, Atlantic Canada will need to increase its capacity to accommodate this rapidly increasing senior population.

Second, the income level of seniors in the Atlantic Provinces is lower than the national average. The median income of individual seniors in 1995 was $14,200 in the Atlantic region. Quebec was the only province with a lower median income ($14,000 for individual seniors). Because of this limited income, housing costs usually represent the largest single expense for seniors. Although the average income of seniors has been increasing over the last few decades as noted above, the average income of Atlantic seniors will still be lower than the national average, limiting their housing options.

Finally, the proportion of Atlantic Canadians living in rural areas is considerably greater than those in other areas of Canada. According to the 2001 Census, 46% of the Atlantic Canadian population lives in rural areas compared to 20% of the nation’s population. The median age of residents in rural areas in Atlantic Canada is also higher than the national level. The greater proportion of the population living in rural areas will affect the living choices of seniors as well, as they will not have the variety of options available to those living in urban areas.

This combination of higher median age, lower income level, and larger rural population makes Atlantic Canada a unique area with an urgent need to address both the current and future housing needs of seniors.

ASHRA provides a detailed profile of Atlantic Canadians and their housing needs as they age over a 20-year period (2001–2026) and compares that profile with the existing options in housing choices and programs. The research component of this project has identified seniors’ housing needs, predicted the future demand for an array of housing options, and identified gaps in supply. The crucial involvement of community collaborators, partners, and stakeholders has provided valuable insight into the housing needs of seniors in Atlantic Canada and helped ASHRA to identify problems and concerns.

It is unlikely that there will be one common solution for all areas and it is imperative that stakeholders from each province be included in this process. Furthermore, the results from the research component of the project will aid in informing public policy development and give community groups the increased  capacity to engage all three levels of government in the implementation of recommended changes.

Communication of Results

ASHRA developed and employed a systematic knowledge mobilization strategy that generates and disseminates information. Findings must be communicated to several different audiences—researchers/academics, government departments/policymakers, service providers, developers/builders/planners, seniors organizations, and the general public—and must serve differing needs (policy development, information search, comparisons). These differences will require a wide range of communications approaches and varied dissemination strategies. Academics will be reached through conference presentations and journal publications, while policymakers will be accessed through policy papers, briefing notes, and the regional Atlantic Seniors Housing Needs Conference. The general public will use the project website to research options, and communities can develop profiles of the emerging housing needs for their local aging population. As a part of ASHRA's knowledge mobilization strategy, students from various universities and programs have been employed to assist in creating editorial and graphics pieces that are continuing to be systematically released to local and regional press over the course of the project.

ASHRA partners and stakeholder groups play a critical role in reaching a wide and diverse audience. Almost all have active internal communications programs with newsletters and websites. All stakeholder groups and partners will have PDF versions of all material, progress reports, and updates to use in their communications. Press releases and prepared newsletter articles are also being widely distributed as research reports are released.

ASHRA has also developed PowerPoint slide presentations that can be distributed to interested stakeholders. These presentations are designed for use at community meetings. Thus, the active support of our provincial stakeholder groups will ensure that the project results reach seniors no matter where they live in Atlantic Canada, and our national partners and those with national affiliations will help us make the material readily available to a wider Canadian audience.

Of major importance to the development of seniors’ housing within Atlantic Canada is the framework for coordinated and collaborative dialogue that is supported by the ASHRA research project. In June of 1990, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and the Nova Scotia Department of Housing sponsored a conference on seniors housing entitled “Housing Our Changing Needs”. Twenty-three recommendations were included in the Conference Summary prepared by Valerie White, the current Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Senior Citizen’s Secretariat, and an ASHRA partner. One of the recommendations stated that “there be an integrated approach between seniors, the private sector, and government. These groups need to communicate and work together to achieve new solutions. An umbrella group could work toward the creation and implementation of innovative housing options with respect to bylaws, zoning regulations, and incentives for private developers”. Now, 20 years later, the ASHRA project has brought these identified elements together, and provided the resources needed to create the envisioned umbrella groups in each of the four Atlantic Provinces.


This project attracted approximately 30 students to acquiring the knowledge and skills essential for addressing an issue of critical importance for Canada, and particularly the Atlantic Region, i.e., housing options for an aging population. Students at all participating universities have had the opportunity to develop research skills in community-based research development, data collection and analysis, and knowledge mobilization through involvement with the project.

In Phase 1, undergraduate and graduate students assisted in the development of the public policy documents, literature reviews, and data file input for the Geo-demographic Model. In Phase 2, students were essential to inputting survey data into an SPSS package and assisting with the initial data analysis, as well as facilitating focus groups and conducting the analysis of the qualitative  results. In Phase 3, students assisted in the development of knowledge mobilization strategies and products, and in conducting the review of existing housing and support service policies/programs in Atlantic Canada. In Phase 4, student assistance continued in the final phase of the policy research and development of recommendations. Several graduate students are also using ASHRA data to complete their Masters theses and are supervised in these efforts by ASHRA project investigators.



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