‘Dropped the ball’ on housing

It’s been over 20 years since a lodge for low-income seniors has been built in Red Deer.

Davina Henry

It’s been over 20 years since a lodge for low-income seniors has been built in Red Deer.

Toss in a recurring tight rental market, the conversion of many apartments into condominiums, a growing and aging population that is living longer, and many seniors trying to survive on fixed incomes who can’t find affordable housing.

“We could build a brand new lodge today, have it filled and have a waiting list. We’re averaging about 60 people a month on our lodge waiting list,” said executive director Geoff Olson with the non-profit Piper Creek Foundation.

“Once we got to the 1980s, there was a real stop to building new facilities to house seniors. It’s wasn’t just the nursing homes. It was the lodges. It was the apartments.”

The foundation has 200 lodge studio suites for low-income seniors earning $17,000 to $27,000 a year; 354 apartment suites rented for 30 per cent of income; and 49 affordable housing suites at 10 per cent below market rent for seniors with a moderate income.

Ideally, 400 more beds in lodges are needed to bring Red Deer on par with some other major communities in Alberta.

There are about 2,500 people in Red Deer over 80 years old. About 10 per cent of the total population is over age 65, with baby boomers ready to create a “real glut” about five years from now, Olson said.

Everyone is to blame for the lack of affordable seniors housing, Olson said.

“I think the foundation probably dropped the ball a few years ago. The province dropped the ball by not having a good funding program. The community dropped the ball in not maintaining it as an issue.”

He said about 10 years ago, the province stopped investing in housing for seniors and “everything started backing up.”

“We started to see people in lodges who should have been in nursing homes. Now it’s probably gotten to the crisis stage. There is no capacity (in nursing homes). It’s all full.”

Red Deer has 328 long-term care beds, but Valley Park Manor and Red Deer Nursing Home are scheduled to be phased out when Michener Hill Village opens with 220 long-term care beds and 60 supportive living units.

Construction is also underway to build 103 supportive living units at CollegeSide Gardens, of which 72 are considered to be affordable studio suites, with rent set by the government at $1,650 per month.

Olson said the amount of for-profit seniors housing has grown, but people need to earn at least $35,000 a year. Many find they can’t afford it.

“They’re living so far beyond their means, they’re burning up all their savings that were supposed to last them into their 80s and 90s.”

They apply at Piper Creek, but seniors making between $27,000 and $35,000 generally earn too much to qualify for housing run by the foundation.

“It’s a tough situation for those folks. They did a good job saving. No one anticipated where rents would be today. It blows me away.”

The foundation has applied for a provincial grant to help build a $9-million, 40-unit affordable housing apartment near Piper Creek Lodge. The province is expected to announce grants for seniors housing soon.

The foundation also wants to replace the 65-suite Piper Creek Lodge with a new 151-unit lodge and apartment complex. But provincial government funding would at most only cover half the cost of the $25-million facility. More grants and fundraising would be necessary.

Piper Creek Lodge resident Davina Henry has seen the plans for the new building, but she doesn’t know if she’ll be around to enjoy it.

“I’m sitting here thinking maybe 90 per cent of us, or 100 per cent of us, won’t be here in three years because already we’ve lost three people and we’ve lost a couple to the nursing home,” said the 95-year-old in her tiny studio suite.

“Actually, we’ve got people in here who should be in nursing homes, 10 or 12, and some of them are on the verge.”

Henry’s 150-square-foot room is large enough only for the basics, a single bed, dresser, night stand, two chairs, a television and room to manoeuvre her walker. The large, accordion-style closet door is difficult for her to open and close.

“Some of the rooms are smaller than this.”

She pays $1,020 per month for her room, meals and recreation programs.

Her studio is in the newest wing, built in the 1970s, so she has a bathtub.

“A lot of them have just a shower, sink and toilet.”

“In 1920, if you had a two-bedroom house, you were well off. But this next generation coming up, they’re going to expect more.”

Piper Creek Lodge (formerly Twilight Lodge) was the first lodge built in Canada, in 1956. For seniors, it’s more than just housing.

“You have somebody to talk to. It’s a friendly place,” said Henry.

Sam Denhaan, president of the Central Alberta Council on Aging, said in recent years government funding for construction has been flowing to private facilities where seniors have to be “well-heeled.”

“It’s a system that’s benefiting people who have the means to get the benefits. It’s not right at all,” Denhaan said.

Seniors have been sounding the alarm for years “but of course, who’s listening?” The province says it will expand home-care programs to help more seniors stay in their homes longer, but so far it’s only been promises, he said.

“They haven’t kicked in yet and we don’t know whether they will kick in.”

Both Olson and Denhaan hope the city’s new Seniors Appropriate Housing Committee will collect the data to show what is needed in Red Deer.

So far, the committee has surveyed seniors, continues to interview officials and plans to hold a community meeting on seniors housing in the spring.

The level of interest makes Olson optimistic.

“Everybody is at least coming to the table to talk and we’ll see if we can get some money to follow that up and address some of the housing issues.”

szielinski@bprda.wpengine.com

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