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Raising the Roof on Senior Women's Housing  by Beverly Suek
Raising the Roof on Senior Women's Housing

Afew years ago, I didn’t give it a thought. Becoming a senior seemed very far away. And if that ever did happen, I have seven children and I always joked with them that I had every intention of making them take care of me in my advanced years.

But one realization, which gets stronger the older I get, is that I don’t want to be under the care and control of my children and their partners. I want to be with friends my own age, people who actually remember Doris Day and Rock Hudson and know that the Big Bopper is not a jump toy.

 Another realization hit me when my mother went into long-term care. She remarried at 80 and had six glorious years with her new partner—until she had a stroke. She needed care—physical care. The choices were a private facility where both could live, for $6,000 a month, or subsidized care, where she would be institutionally separated from the love of her life.

They didn’t have $6,000 a month, so he lived in one place and she lived in another. We’re told that we live in a world that supports families, but in fact we separate them in the way we set up long-term institutional care. Not only that, but my mother was locked in the building. Because many of the home’s residents were living with dementia, none of the residents were permitted to leave unless accompanied by an adult—which, it was assumed, they weren’t.

This brought the long-term care issue home to me. This is what is available in the real world, I realized. And I wondered, what would it be like for my friends in lesbian relationships? Many non-profit long-term care facilities are run by church groups or the Lions Club. If heterosexual couples are having trouble staying together in long-term care, I wondered what the situation would be like for homosexual couples.

So, about three years ago, a group of us got together to clarify our dreams and discuss how we could make things different. We wanted to define a new set of principles and values congruent with women’s lives, and redesign retirement homes and long-term care facilities.

Our goal was to get financing and actually build a retirement village for women—to build a prototype that could be used elsewhere. Our group is diverse—Aboriginal women, immigrant women, women with family members with disabilities,
lesbians and heterosexual women. We call ourselves the Committee for Retirement Alternatives for Women. We did some research and this is what we discovered.

Women are the primary users of retirement housing and residential care facilities. There are approximately 2.5 women for every man in residential care facilities in Canada.  As the baby boomers age, there is a projected lack of retirement options for them as they reach the 60-yearold mark. Affordable retirement housing is particularly pressing for women, given that women over 65 make up a substantial percentage of people who live below the poverty line.

Many women do not have a private pension, or else live on a very small pension, because they were predominantly homemakers, worked in low-paying jobs or worked only part-time. I have neighbours two doors down whose house has been vacant for three years. One of them is in a retirement home, the other in nursing care. But they have lived in our neighbourhood for 40 years. They feel at home here. They won’t give up their house because to do so would be an admission that they’re not coming back. They want to spend their last years in a community they know, but that is not possible.

And it’s just not about location.

Many retirement complexes and long-term care facilities are near the city limits or are not in the communities where people have their connections. Yet most older people want to continue to be part of their communities, and not live in isolated, far-toget- to facilities. They may not be able to play soccer, but many would love to watch children play soccer. Able-bodied people want to walk to buy their groceries and see people. I personally insist that I be somewhere across the street from a Starbucks.

What we have is a large and growing group of low-income women who can never afford $400,000 condos or private facilities that cost $6,000 per month. I think we need to start by separating retirement housing from long-term care facilities. In the last years of your life, you get moved as soon as you lose bladder control or can’t feed yourself. It’s a hard decision for individuals or families to make, because it feels like the beginning of the end.

Again, you lose the people you have gotten to know. So why not build housing that accommodates the transition in the same location? I was recently at a conference on long term care for women. One of the speakers was from Sweden, where they have more innovative housing for seniors. They build based on a housing model, rather than a hospital model. People have apartments in which they live permanently. They have a sitting room and a kitchen. The kitchen can be disabled if, in later years, the person has dementia. But it feels like home and it affords people some control over their environment. Nursing care is provided as an add-on.

I remember visiting my mother in a nursing home—it was like a hospital—and the room contained one uncomfortable chair. How I would have loved to lie down with my mother in a double bed, or sit on a couch with her and watch TV and hold her hand.When she was dying, I stayed all night in that uncomfortable chair, refusing to leave because visiting hours were over.

This brings me to another key problem, which is that residents, particularly in long-term care, have no control over decisions regarding their environment. This is what frightens
people the most. You’re 86 and have been independent all your life, but now you can’t make the decision to sleep in till noon and to stay up till midnight playing cards with friends. You might even have to sneak that glass of wine into your room.

Let’s face it, women over 60 are predominantly poor. Most cannot afford expensive private options. Many women have part-time jobs with no pro-rated pension. Many are widowed and collect only two-fifths of their husbands’ pensions. In looking at the women who are nearing retirement age, it is clear that private for-profit retirement
housing is not accessible for most women.

What I found at the women’s housing conference in Halifax was that most provinces, particularly Ontario, are moving heavily towards private facilities for seniors’ housing. Manitoba has more publicly funded options, but the really classy joints are the private, expensive ones. Another key problem is that most long-term care facilitates do not accommodate couples! So if one member of the couple does not need long-term care, they are separated. Even if they are both in the same facility, they are not always
accommodated as a couple.

With these concerns in mind, our committee decided to develop affordable housing that is sensitive to an active and diverse female community. We agreed that the retirement housing would be built on principles of respect, diversity and community building.

We decided that our principles would be:

• That the housing should be affordable to low-income
• That the housing should support a sense of community,
with people helping people, sharing and caring;
• That the housing should be integrated into the
community at large, not isolated;
• That the housing should be built with environmentally
friendly features and will operate with minimal negative
impact on the environment;
• That there will be respect for the experience and
knowledge of the residents, and their knowledge should be
passed on to others;
• That respect for differences will be a key principle, with a
conflict resolution mechanism to resolve disputes;
• That diversity will be a principle and that it will be inclusive of the needs of women from different cultural backgrounds, Aboriginal women, lesbian women and women with disabilities;
• That the governance model will allow for participation of the
residents in the policies and operation of the housing complex;
• That there will be options for women—to participate in programs, to have privacy, to interact with others, to interact with the community, to travel, etc.; and
• That there should be a continuity of care—from early
retirement housing to comprehensive care—at the same

These principles include both retirement housing and longterm care to accommodate women, both when we are fully able-bodied and when we have impediments and need more care. We see ourselves as helping one another, creating a community where we care about and for one another to the best of our abilities, and where we don’t ship some women off to an institution because they need greater care. Our dream includes all these things.

We’re not just talking about housing or long-term care. We’re talking about building communities.We want a design that encourages conversation and co-operation. One of our group members built a model that has two floors with an inner courtyard. There’s an inside walkway on the second floor, where women could sit outside their rooms, have tea and chat to people who walk by, or watch Tai Chi classes. If they are unable to participate in the activities, at least they could be part of them as interested observers. The plans include a café and a common kitchen where residents can cook when they want to.

A portion of the building will be dedicated to women who need intensive care, but they will still be part of the community. We don’t see ourselves as being isolated on the outskirts of nowhere, but as an integral part of a larger community. We’d like the recognition that we have wisdom and talent to share with the community.Our design has a front section that is like a community centre, with a pool that can be used by the community as well as by residents, and rooms for teaching anything from knitting to economic theory.

We don’t want just to be taken care of, we want to participate.We are baby boomers who moved from watching TV shows like Father Knows Best to reading Betty Freidan
and Germaine Greer. We took to heart Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. We fought to change the society we were living in then because we believed in having more control over our own lives as women. And we’re not about to give up the control we’ve worked so hard for.

We want to run the place, not have our decisions made by a board of directors made up of guys in suits. Some of us may not be able to participate fully, but those who are mentally competent will.

Our dream encompass the past, present and future. Our dream is to encourage respect for the past and what we can learn from it, to live fully in the present and, at the same time, to make a better future for our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.We care about the planet and its future, too.

But making the dream come true has been a challenge. For one grant we applied for, we were expected to have purchased the land and to have an architectural drawing completed prior to applying. One person assessing our application actually suggested that we ask women’s organizations to provide the funding. We’ve been turned down three times already, but we’ll keep trying.

In the meantime, I will keep talking to people to encourage them to view housing for older women differently, because I know what I want and don’t want for myself, my children and my grandchildren. I know that I don’t want to make Styrofoam snowmen and snowwomen to keep busy. I don’t want to be warehoused in quad rooms down long hallways where there is no interaction with other residents or the community at large. And I don’t want to be loaded with tranquilizers and sleeping pills to keep me quiet.

I don’t want to be quiet! I want to shout loudly, be brave, be cantankerous when I need to be and love whenever I can, and to continue, as I always have, to live life to the fullest. 

Beverly Suek lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.