Kavanagh: 'Naturally occurring retirement communities' deserve a boost in Ontario

The Ontario election campaign is a good time to press candidates on improving health options for older people.

Ottawa Citizen 3 minute read May 4, 2022

Long-term care is not the only option: All election candidates should be discussing ways to help older Ontarians remain active in their communities. National Post / PST

The provincial election campaign is an opportunity to ask candidates how they plan to improve health options for aging residents in our communities.

The percentage of seniors in Ottawa and across the country is growing. Recently, Statistics Canada told us that one in five Canadians is now over the age of 65. Most seniors are active in their communities; however, if physical limitations occur, this leaves many isolated in their homes.

The pandemic has taught us lessons that will forever change the way we think of health care and live in our community. We have awakened to the importance of a stronger, well-resourced health care system that is responsive, inclusive and informed. We need competent, respected health programs in place that radically change the way we understand healthy aging, and start listening to seniors about what they need and want. Long-term care facilities should not be a default service provider but a last resort for those who cannot live independently.

Seniors and health-care professionals have been telling us for years that the old models of relying on institutionalized seniors’ residences, especially long-term care facilities, are not working. They can’t accommodate individual lifestyle choices, leaving many seniors lonely, helpless and bored. The private retirement residences are financially inaccessible for many. Our provincially funded long-term care system is expensive and seriously underfunded, poorly monitored, and a breeding ground for disease. Will we ever forget that the greatest proportion of the COVID-19 deaths in Canada were in long-term care homes?

Let’s look at preventative measures. We need to look at positive ways of keeping seniors healthy and independent as long as possible.

I draw inspiration from models like the NORCs: Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. This is a model of senior living that is catching on in many Ontario cities. I have seen enthusiastic reports from researchers in three Ontario universities and, most importantly, a loud cheer from seniors who have been working to pilot and develop NORCs in their communities. The concept is so simple, it is astounding that it isn’t a significant part of our continuum of choices for senior living, as it is in many European countries.

Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities happen in buildings or neighbourhoods with a significant seniors’ population already in residence. They rely on the input of the residents themselves to bring resources on-site for seniors who choose to live in their own homes as long as possible. They co-ordinate practical information, services such as home care, and social engagement activities that seniors would normally go to. It greatly decreases stress and enables people’s sense of autonomy, independence and mastery.

NORCs don’t require 24/7 staffing or expensive facilities to maintain, and rely primarily on services already available in the community. They are money savers, in addition to being a program that demonstrates a whole new vision of healthy, self-determined aging. I am enthusiastically following the first Ottawa NORC research, hoping that it will lead to the creation of this type of option for seniors across our city. Bay Ward, which I represent, is home to some of the local groundbreaking work, led by a determined group of residents in the Ambleside Drive condominiums, the Council on Aging and Carleton University. I applaud them.

Is there a government bold enough to take the steps needed to show seniors they are listening to them? NORCs are truly an idea whose time has come, and it should be a priority issue for this Ontario election.

Theresa Kavanagh is Ottawa city councillor for Bay Ward, with the second-highest concentration of seniors in Canada.