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Re-defining Senior Living

People are living longer

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Calgary’s Journey Club.

While many aspects of Calgary life can and will be blamed on the COVID curse, the focus and the concept of “senior living” were already being re-defined, sometimes drastically and sometimes subtly.

Long before the potent public health and safety impact of the pandemic – causing isolation, choked-off family and social contact, particularly among the high-risk senior cohort, changes to Calgary senior living lifestyle wants and needs were already happening.

Now that there seems to be light at the end of Calgary’s long and gloomy COVID tunnel, the changes in senior living not only underscore the importance of the contemporary “active living” concept but emphasize a broad focus on mental and physical health as vital aspects of senior living.

For various reasons and in many ways, Calgary is proving to be an innovative pioneer when it comes to re-defining senior living. The choices and the options for Calgary seniors are transformational.

“Pre-COVID, senior living was already changing,” explains the personable Careen Chrusch, director of Marketing and Communications with Calgary’s United Active Living (Garrison Green and Fish Creek) communities. “People are living longer and that’s something that wasn’t necessarily anticipated when many senior residences were established years ago. One of the most significant changes is the shift from telling seniors what and how they should live in their final years, to a resident-driven experience where seniors tell us what they need, and we work to accomplish that.”

Before the harsh and cruel broadsides of social distancing and mandatory isolation, traditionally (even though it has become a bit of an overused cliché) some seniors resist conventional (and clichéd) senior living due to lingering fear of losing independence. With today’s innovative senior living facilities, amenities and programs, it no longer such a stark trade-off. Besides, clinicians and aging experts explain that views on aging are closely linked with quality of life issues – from physical symptoms like pain and chronic conditions to emotional well-being like happiness and absence of stress and anxiety. There is also caution that living alone can often cause loneliness and lead to depression and aging more quickly.

“Senior living has significantly changed over the past five or so years,” says Alisa Audia, general manager of The Edward in Calgary. “There are more options and a stronger focus on the overall lifestyle offered. There is a new focus on upgrading the resident experience to appeal to the baby boomer demographic. Baby boomers demand a broader range of amenities and luxuries than past generations. They want a higher degree of comfort, style and choice.”

According to Chrusch, there is documented consensus that older adults want to continue to engage in meaningful, active, and engaging lives, even after they have decided to live in an older adult community. Historically there has been a perception that once a person decided to move into an older adult community that was it, it was the end of their life. “We now see that their desire is focused on how they want to live. And we are happy to oblige in providing residents with engaging, active lifestyles, while also enjoying the benefits of community living,” she says.

Senior living professionals agree that the phrase “there will be some changes made” is already stale. There have already been changes made and it’s now up to senior living residences to adjust to the changes.

“Changing consumer preferences are evident in the new generation of seniors who expect to remain in their homes longer, and expect a different kind of continuing care system than the current generation of elderly,” notes Julie Arnold at The Brenda Strafford Foundation (BSF). “Particularly when it comes to ‘baby boomers,’ who want to be more involved in decisions that impact them and are typically more educated, have access to more information and resources, and have a greater comfort with technology than depression/war-era seniors. “This comes with different expectations around choice, maintaining independence, and involvement in decision-making today, in comparison to senior living in the past.”

She emphasizes that innovation is a vital aspect of senior living. One example is last year’s introduction of the BSF’s exciting ‘Pursuit of a Lifetime’ program, designed to inspire BSF residents to continue dreaming and pursuing their passions and goals. Like the popular ‘Make a Wish’ concept, twice a year ‘Pursuit of a Lifetime’ accepts applications to fulfill lifelong dreams – meeting the Calgary Flames, swimming with dolphins, reuniting with overseas family or learning an instrument. (Applications for the next Pursuit of a Lifetime are open until the end of February.)

Contemporary senior living specialists are anticipating and adjusting to the lifestyle trends and the wants, needs and expectations of today’s (and tomorrow’s) seniors.

It’s documented fact that seniors are resistant to senior living because they fear they will lose what they value: the desire for the independence of staying in their own homes, although stats and surveys show that there comes a time when they are unable. Various studies also show that living alone can often cause loneliness that leads to depression and aging more quickly.

Healthcare is an unavoidable factor for contemporary seniors. Stats undisputedly track that although boomers are living longer, once they arrive in senior care they will be sicker than previous generations. With more Alzheimer’s, asthma, rising obesity rates and more diabetes diagnoses, senior living will include a higher than ever demand for personal healthcare.

Today’s senior residents want design elements that help maintain independence and privacy with sometimes taken for granted features, like in-unit laundry and kitchens, private entrances and places for family and friends to gather. And despite the stereotypes about seniors adjusting to technology, the trends and numbers show that that technology will still play an increasingly significant role in how prospective senior living residents manage their day-to-day activities, healthcare and social engagement. The trends also underscore that boomers demand and expect environments that are technologically enabled. Mostly because they currently have more access to the outside world through technology than previous generations, they will want to keep that access when they move into a senior living community.

“We have pioneered the operational idea that ‘assisted living’ is now available to all residents throughout our community regardless of their care needs,” says Al Boileau, executive director of Calgary’s Journey Club. “Unlike traditional facilities where residents with care needs are required to move to different areas of the residence in order to receive the level of care they require, we are a true, age-in-place community where care is provided in-suite. We also focus on socialization from a resident driven perspective. We don’t offer typical bingo (unless residents want it) and our Inspired Living Program is designed resident-first, everything from lectures and talks, to exercise and movement to arts and entertainment.”

Calgary’s senior living experts admit that COVID has taken its toll. “There is no doubt that our residents have felt the impact the pandemic, especially during periods of time when they have not been able to see family and friends and due to safety protocols, our programming and services have had to be paused,” Chrusch says. “Some of the things our residents enjoy the most about living in our communities is the opportunity to live a social, active and engaged life and like most of us during last year, they have really missed how they were used to living.”

According to Julie Arnold, “The global pandemic has undoubtedly impacted the outlook and lifestyles of Calgary’s active seniors. But the availability of the vaccine in Canada, and here in Alberta, certainly offers hope for a return to some degree of normalcy and interpersonal connection which is especially welcome for residents of continuing care.”

The Edward’s Alisa Audia emphasizes that the COVID impact on the outlook of Calgary seniors is undeniable. “It has taught us all to appreciate the small things, such as a good meal, fresh air and a warm smile. Seniors specifically are looking for a safe place to call home and miss being part of a larger community. It has also shown some seniors that living at home alone may not be the ideal option.”

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