An Age-Friendly City

Rethinking (and rebuilding) Calgary for an aging population.

Calgary’s population is growing, and it’s also growing older. By 2041, seniors – the 65-and-over demographic – will make up 19% of our total population. That’s up from 9% in 2016. 

It’s a major shift, but we’re going to be prepared. The City of Calgary, in partnership with government, older Calgarians and members of the health, education, nonprofit and private sectors, is preparing a community-wide plan. In 2015, the City rolled out the Seniors Age-Friendly Strategy, a framework that prepares us for an aging population.

What’s the Seniors Age-Friendly Strategy?

It’s a strategy to allow Calgarians to age in a way that keeps us healthy, active and well-connected. It focuses on six priority areas:

  • Access to information and services
  • Community support and health
  • Housing
  • Participation and inclusion
  • Prevention of and response to elder abuse
  • Transportation and mobility

Unsurprisingly, many of these areas overlap.

Raynell McDonough is the strategy lead for the development and implementation of the Seniors Age-Friendly Strategy. She says the City is currently working on many programs and services for older people, including a strategy to make businesses more age-friendly. This program provides a checklist to participating business owners that covers everything from entrances and flooring to signage and service. 

McDonough and her team are also exploring ways for Calgarians to age in place. She says many older Calgarians don’t live in housing – or in communities – that are designed for people who may be managing age-related changes in lifestyle, health and mobility. 

“The houses we tend to buy are ones that are geared for people who are not facing mobility or health or sensory challenges. Our lifestyle in Calgary is largely a suburban one where we don’t live as close together or as densely as some other areas in the world. That creates some transportation challenges. We’re a little farther away from each other and from amenities.”

- Raynell McDonough, Issue Strategist for the City of Calgary

What do older people need?

It depends on the person and their circumstances. The aging Boomer generation has different priorities, expectations, and interests from its parent and grandparents. A 2015 City of Calgary report on our aging population says older Calgarians are, on average, wealthier, more highly educated, more culturally diverse and more technologically adept than previous generations. 

Cynthia Watson, chief evolution officer of Vivo for Healthier Generations, says her organization conducted a focus group study with seniors from the city’s northeast to find out what’s meaningful to them. The results showed that seniors are interested in engaging with their communities and in remaining healthy and socially connected. 

“This population of seniors is about maintaining their health. They want to use their skills that they’ve had throughout their careers and keep them relevant. A lot them want to work in a part-time capacity. They feel like they have a lot of wisdom to share.”

- Cynthia Watson, Chief Evolution Officer at Vivo for Healthier Generations

Older Calgarians also want to age in place. They’re seeking a range of options that allow them to change their living arrangements without necessarily having to leave the community. This means communities must offer a wide range of housing options and amenities, recreation and learning opportunities, social spaces, shopping, health services and parks.  

A 2014 AARP Public Policy Institute report in the U.S. examined the community preferences of older adults. It found that most people in this demographic want to live in an amenity-rich community and to have reliable access to public transportation, shops and parks.

“A livable community is one that is safe and secure, has affordable and appropriate housing and transportation options, and has supportive community features and services. Once in place, those resources enhance personal independence; allow residents to age in place; and foster residents’ engagement in the community’s civic, economic, and social life.”

- The definition of a “livable community” for older adults according to a 2014 AARP Public Policy Institute report

Jessie Seymour, senior manager of community experience for Brookfield Residential, says she’s seen a shift in the priorities of homebuyers. Once, new greenfield communities were where young couples went to raise families. As of 2014, Calgary’s newest greenfield communities had the lowest seniors populations. Today, these communities – such as Brookfield’s new Livingston community in north Calgary – are being designed to meet changing expectations. 

“We’ve seen such a huge evolution in the generations that are being attracted to our communities. We’re seeing more interest and demand for Boomers to be closer to their kids and grandkids. We’re really trying to create spaces that aren’t just one focus. It’s not just for the kids anymore. It’s for a multitude of age groups.”

- Jessie Seymour, Senior Manager of Community Experience for Brookfield Residential

Jessie Seymour of Brookfield Residential says her team took a fresh approach when designing Livingston, with a focus on resident engagement, community pride and opportunities for connection. These considerations informed decisions about housing types, facilities, amenities and programs. 

New housing options

Some Calgary developments are being created with multigenerational living in mind. Jayman’s Westman Village in Mahogany is a “complete community,” a large housing complex with four different home styles and an amenity centre. It includes two retirement communities for people over 45 and a building specifically for seniors. It was designed in consultation with seniors’ communities, who recommended features that make the housing comfortable for older people.

  • Low curbs, low-threshold balconies and no major stairs.
  • Large, bright areas for socializing.
  • Large door thresholds and frames with recessed door hinges.
  • Walkways and underground pass ways to fitness, retail and entertainment amenities.
  • “A la carte” care options that residents can select according to their needs and stage of life (and change as those needs change). 

While an option like this works best for financially comfortable seniors, new possibilities are emerging for more vulnerable and economically disadvantaged people. 

Shared housing

Just up the road from Calgary, Red Deer has been operating a HomeShare program since 2012. This is an affordable housing practice that pairs seniors with younger people, often students, in a single residence. The seniors provide the living space while the younger “housemates” help with household tasks. The program is intended to help older people remain independent in their own homes while providing affordable housing for young people. It has the further advantage of providing companionship for people and bridges between generations. 

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Vecino Group of Springfield has proposed a multigenerational housing option that will provide affordable options for seniors, and will also assist vulnerable young people. The developer plans to build a 60-unit housing building, with half the units occupied by seniors and half by young people aging out of foster care. It’s inspired by a similar project in Portland, Oregon that describes itself as an “intentional intergenerational living community.”

The future of long-term care

What about seniors who don’t want housemates, but are no longer able to live independently? Usually, these seniors move to long-term care facilities, but new options are emerging.
A pilot project in Calgary is testing the feasibility of prefabricated laneway houses specifically designed for older people with ongoing medical concerns. The small units, which are designed to be portable, have equipment that can monitor a resident’s health and/or provide chronic disease management. 

The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers from the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design, Cumming School of Medicine and O’Brien Institute for Public Health. It became an official City of Calgary pilot project in 2016, and the third version of the prefab unit prototype began testing in the community in 2017. 

Now that Calgary has reformed its secondary suite application process, laneway options could become a more practical and feasible option for older residents.

Better communities

Building an age-friendly urban environment benefits everyone. When a community is designed to support the needs of older Calgarians, it tends to support the needs of all Calgarians. 

“[An age-friendly community is one] where policies, services, and the built environment are created to allow older adults to live safe, healthy, and connected lives. This looks like wide and well-lit sidewalks, accessible buildings, affordable transit, and pleasant outdoor areas. Who wouldn’t like that?”

- Sustainable Calgary in its Active Neighbour Series

May 11th, 2018
Updated: May 14th, 2018

As Calgary’s population ages, what can the city do to keep its older citizens healthy, comfortable and connected?