A home of one’s own:  Is aging in place an option for northern seniors?

Photo Credit: Hans Saefkow

A home of one’s own:  Is aging in place an option for northern seniors?

👤Norma Kerby 🕔Oct 09, 2014

“If my house sells, I am moving to the Maritimes.”

The would-be seller, a long-time Terrace resident, had recently retired and was hoping to cash in on soaring house prices. With what he would make selling his house in Terrace, he could buy a nice home in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick and still have considerable cash to help him through retirement years. His was a serendipitous situation. After 20 years of depressed housing prices in the region, the transnational speculation surrounding LNG pipelines was making real estate in Terrace and Kitimat a lucrative business.

Not all seniors want to make the choice to leave northern BC. As some of the more economically depressed areas of the north “grey” when young people move away to find work, more economically robust northern communities are increasing in their over-65 component due to general population aging. In 2031, an estimated 23.7 percent of British Columbians will be seniors. But is aging in place in a rural location an option when even government services within urban centres are struggling to meet seniors’ needs?

Demographics have clearly showed the baby boomer bulge inching over the line into retirement age for some time. The sheer number of seniors in British Columbia, an estimated one million by 2020 and 1.34 million by 2031, will affect us in many ways.  

The cost and logistics associated with increasing health services and transportation needs will put a significant strain on government services at all levels. Our large Canadian cities may already be developing infrastructure to respond to rapidly increasing numbers of retirees, but what is happening in the small communities and rural areas of the North?

Most northern communities were designed for young families with money, children and cars. These communities are and will be challenged to accommodate seniors with mobility and low-income barriers. In the North, problems with an aging population are even more exacerbated compared to the South. Long distances between communities, remoteness of rural dwellers, severe winter weather and de-servicing of small communities after the collapse of the forest industry all generate major challenges in efforts to accommodate seniors who remain.

Facing the challenge

In the past, northern BC exported many of its citizens past working age south to retirement meccas. Over the last two decades of overseas investments in the BC housing market, options to move to milder climates are being closed off to many northerners. With sky-rocketing housing and rental prices (this summer, the average single detached house in Vancouver sold for $1.36 million, with the average condo priced from $380,000 to $760,000), many who considered trading snow shovelling for a southern condo must consider growing old where they live.

The second choice for rural northerners is to move into town. Aging outside a service centre, such as Prince George, Fort St. John or Smithers, is not for the faint-hearted. Living in Rosswood, north of Terrace, became a non-option for one elderly couple when the husband developed severe health problems requiring him to be within minutes of acute care services. Even with good road conditions, Rosswood is almost an hour to the hospital.

With the choice of moving to the Okanagan or Vancouver Island being out of the economic reach of many northern seniors, such as this couple, the option becomes selling out and moving somewhere else in the North with more services and easier access to shopping and socialization.  In the past, this type of move was feasible for most rural seniors. Over the last two years, though, real estate speculation and soaring housing prices, driven by proposals for transnational-scale industrial development, have put this out of scale for many.

A post-65-year-old wanting to sell in the Stikine or Stewart regions and buy in the Highway 16 corridor is faced with a steep gap in prices. With a three-bedroom home selling for $170,000 in Dease Lake or Stewart, the equivalent house in the Terrace, Kitimat or Smithers areas sells for $300,000 to $400,000 or higher, if one can find a listing.

A senior wishing to rent and use house capital to support retirement also faces challenges: the vacancy rates this year in Terrace and Kitimat were close to zero percent, with monthly rents ranging from $775 for a fifth wheel trailer in someone’s yard to $2,500 or higher for a three-bedroom home.

These rates are out of reach for most seniors on pensions and the number of spaces in subsidized seniors’ housing is limited, with long waiting lists. Even with the medical services in a centre like Terrace, for a senior to move from places such as Telegraph Creek, Dease Lake or the Hazeltons has become almost impossible.

Transportation breakdown

Aging in place, in a rural location or small community, may become a matter of necessity rather than of choice. If a senior lives where housing prices collapsed along with the forest industry, the years ahead may be difficult. Unable to sell their property at reasonable prices, or even to sell at all, these seniors are faced with the dilemma of what to do in a location with limited health and social services.

The problem becomes even more dramatic if seniors lose their driver’s licence and are unable to travel into larger communities for doctors’ appointments and the necessities of life. My mother lost her licence in her later senior years. The impact was dramatic. From a self-sufficient, active community volunteer who looked after most of her own needs, she became reliant on family for the most basic travel. She was within a rural area of a larger community and could have ordered a taxi if she had overcome her fears, but what happens if you are a rural senior and the next closest house is five kilometres away?  

What if you do not have family or friends that are available to help? Subsidized government services such as HandyDART, a door-to-door shared-ride service, do not extend into remote locations. All these seniors can hope for is good neighbours—a system that isn’t workable in the long term. As health and strength diminish, they will face a major survival crisis.

What had been grand dreams in the 1960s and 1970s, as young people spread out into the northern wilderness to live back-to-the-land, have become challenges as they cross into their senior years. As the government addresses an aging population, the unique needs of rural and remote northern seniors need to be remembered. Allowing seniors to age in place is a provincial health system goal, but what happens to those seniors who do not live within range of health and social services?

For the retiree in the real estate office in Terrace, the windfall of owning a house in a soaring real estate market has offered the unforeseen opportunity to sell and move away from northern BC, taking with him a financial bankroll to ease his senior years. For other northerners who do not want to move, or who are located in remote and rural areas where the economic boom has not hit, the choices are limited and the future more uncertain.  

Aging northerners face the dilemma of needing medical services not readily available in the region, but lacking the capital to invest in more expensive lifestyles elsewhere.