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Mobility industry supports seniors to age in place

There has been a lot of growth in the market for mobility devices and sport wheelchairs designed for para-atheles, like these for Winsport at Canada Olymic Park, which runs a year-round, adapted sports program.

Older adults are the fastest growing demographic in Canada. Around 19 per cent of Canadians (or seven million people) are aged 65, and 2.5 million of them will be over 85 by 2046.

It’s a trend the mobility and accessibility industry across Calgary is well aware of. The number of people aged 65-plus living in Calgary has increased by 28 per cent from 2016 to 2021. Many of those people are also part of the wealthiest generation of all time which has been driving growth in the sector as more people are able to purchase what they need to make their lives easier, whether it’s a walker, cane, wheelchair or adaptations to their homes.

Staying in their homes longer

Aging in place is a growing trend as more Canadians approach retirement and want to stay in their own homes for as long as possible.

“Decisions are being made at the kitchen table by married couples who are making a pact to look after each until they can’t anymore, instead of being put into care,” says Tam Wishart, co-owner of Maximum Healthcare and Mobility that has a 14,000 sq. ft. office and warehouse in northeast Calgary employing 18 full time staff. “It’s certainly more common to see people put a suite in a garage or buy an extra-big home to bring an older person in to live. Most people love their home, and it’s a huge transition to go into care.”

Around 40 to 50 per cent of the work that Ben May does as the Universal Design Manager for Calgary’s Home Medical Solutions (HMS) is bathroom modifications in people’s homes.

“One of the biggest barriers for people being able to stay at home is the ability to be use their washroom and bathe themselves,” he says. “Although it’s about functionality and accessibility, people also want to make it look like it’s not accessible, so we strive to make our projects look high-end and attractive.”

An industry focused on needs

“No one wants a wheelchair salesperson in their house; nor do they want our products, but they need them,” says Wishart. “We simply meet our clients’ mobility needs. Most of our business is referral-based through occupational therapists and physical therapists in the community. They can be in hospitals, long term care centres, schools or with the Calgary homecare program.”

Not everyone can afford expensive house renovations, though, so there are a number of programs that help match lower income Canadians needing those modifications with government funding, such as Alberta’s Aids to Daily Living or Residential Access Modification Program (RAMP). Unfortunately, it can be confusing for people to figure out which program they are eligible for or who to contact.

“There are so many programs, at so many levels, it’s sometimes hard to navigate,” says Beatrice Jordache, general manager of HMS. “We try to link customers with contractors and the correct program if needed.”

There has also been an increase in the number of small businesses that offer help and advice about the different aspects of transition for seniors. These entrepreneurs discovered (often due to a personal experience with a family member) an unmet need in areas such as what to pack (and leave behind) when people move into seniors accommodation, how they can choose the best senior housing for their needs and budget, and transportation considerations, especially for those that don’t live in an urban area.

Technology driving growth

Technology has played a big part in driving growth in the mobility sector. Seniors have become more used to using technology and are embracing it as a vital part of their daily lives.

“Seniors are becoming more comfortable with technology,” Jordache says. “A decade ago, it wasn’t common to have Wi-Fi in seniors’ homes, but today it is one of the biggest requirements because residents want to keep in touch with families and friends.”

They are also becoming more independent as the technology allows them to keep track of their own health in their homes.

“We see more interest in wearables so that they can self-monitor; things like taking their own their blood pressure or have oxygen at home,” Jordache says.

There is also a lot more complex technology in mobility products.

“For a manual wheelchair there is now a power add-on; a small motor that the person can control,” Wishart says. “It’s typically portable and rechargeable and turns a manual wheelchair into a three-wheeled, powered mobility device. These have become much more common over the past five years.”

One company, Permobil, offers a power wheelchair with a Wi-Fi-enabled smart drive that can be controlled through an Apple watch or similar device. Other power wheelchairs offer customizable technology to allows users to drive them with their foot, knee, chin or head to accommodate different levels of disability for all ages.

Staying educated

More focus on care in the home and aging in place means companies in the industry have to keep abreast of new issues that arise as a result. An example is an increase in the prevalence of bedsores within the community that require nursing treatment and specialty equipment like air-filled wheelchair cushions or low air loss mattresses that can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $12,000.

“Our job is to introduce equipment that will help stop or heal that wound,” Wishart says. “We have to continually educate ourselves to make sure that equipment fits the need and works properly.”

Another market that has seen a lot of growth is sport wheelchairs and other mobility devices designed for para-athletes. Maximum recently supplied 40 sport wheelchairs to WinSport at Canada Olympic Park, which runs a year-round, adapted sports program, is where 30 of the athletes that competed at the Paralympics in Beijing in 2022 were trained and is home to the head office of Hockey Canada’s national para-hockey team.

“WinSport is running a great program and it’s a grassroots organization that allows wheelchair users to try different sports like rugby, tennis basketball or many others,” Wishart says.

Long-term care responding to the trends

Senior housing and long-term care facilities are also embracing something of the aging in place concept. Multi-use and lifestyle communities incorporate the best of 24-hour care facilities with multi-generational housing, retail units, pharmacies, mobility companies, doctor’s office, movie theatres and sometimes even childcare facilities.

“More people are moving to seniors’ communities earlier in life and that’s why there is an increase in lifestyle communities,” Jordache says. “Snowbirds and golf communities are nothing new, but today there is an overall tendency towards nature and wellness-focused amenities. Assisted independent living facilities cater to those who are still active and want to keep active.”