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For Darren and Wanda Cooper, moving in with their adult children was a worthy, but ultimately failed experiment. “We wanted it to work — we loved the idea of helping out with the grandkids, sharing meals, feeling useful and connected,” says Wanda. “We’re retired now, so it was also appealing to us in terms of affordability” (their pensions contributed to the mortgage). On top of that, the Coopers’ daughter wanted to be able to support her dad who’d been newly diagnosed with diabetes, helping to manage his symptoms and daily medication. She and her husband gamely increased the footprint of their Brentwood bungalow, adding a multi-room suite to their main floor. 

Six months in, all three generations admitted the stress of trying to make their widely varied needs and routines align outweighed the benefit of being together around the clock. On good terms, Darren and Wanda moved out, trading one set of frustrations for another: their new apartment is 15 minutes away by car, and they aren’t able to routinely help their kids in meaningful ways. 

Wanda feels unsettled about their future:

“We’re independent now, but we think about our health and our living situation in a decade or two when we’ll need more help and will have to move again.”

Certainly, while many cultures pivot on intergenerational living, it’s not the norm in Canada; there’s no model for seamless housing transitions as we age and our roles, health and abilities change. Little wonder that our surging population of seniors is increasingly seeking housing alternatives suitable from retirement through end of life. 

Researchers in UCalgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS) are working on such an option that has the potential to both bend the health-care curve to provide a more cost-effective housing option, and transform the way elderly Canadians remain integrated with the community. 

John Brown is the dean of EVDS, home to professional programs in architecture, landscape architecture and planning. He heads a long-term collaboration with researchers in the Cumming School of Medicine who are looking at housing-design strategies for individuals with mobility and medical issues. While still in the research stage, his Age-in-Place Laneway Housing Project — a smart-tech, portable home — is about to take another step closer to sparking real change.

Fully wheelchair-accessible, the 450-square-foot, wood-frame home is equipped with technology that controls water temperature; provides safety features such as shutting off the stove if the cook wanders away; and even monitors the behavioural rhythms of the occupant. Special flooring reduces the chances of hip fractures by 75 per cent, and innovative memory aids and modular support bars make daily tasks manageable for individuals with a variety of medical issues. Most appealing, the idea is that the homes would be leased out and are small enough to be placed in the backyard of almost any lot, allowing seniors to stay close to community, friends, family and support systems while retaining independence.

Already tested in an actual “laneway” setting (i.e. in a residential backyard) in Altadore, the house currently sits adjacent to a local seniors’ facility where it is about to welcome its next series of guests. Residents with varied physical abilities from the neighbouring institution will each spend one month living in the prototype house. Results from their voluntary participation in the study will guide both the development of the next prototype, and shape the kinds of uses this unit might have in the health-care-system. Researchers have also tested features in the home by employing an “aging suit” that simulates some common physical symptoms of old age, to foster pragmatic design underpinned by empathy.

While it’s too early to predict when the project might move from prototype to reality, Brown says, “the research is active, and there is such a need for expanded housing options for people to maintain living in their community and close to loved ones.”

Long-term and acute-care facilities, he adds, “are expensive and not always what people want.”

In the fall, the house will move to a rural location to evaluate its potential use in a remote situation. 

The Coopers, meanwhile, may one day find that the ideal solution is possible in their own (daughter’s) backyard. 

 


UCalgary’s $1.3 billion Energize campaign fuels innovations that foster healthy aging. Together, we will inspire discovery, creativity and innovation to advance health and wellness, and strengthen vital community connections.

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