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Saturday, July 13, 2024
In depth: NOTL seniors don’t ever want to leave, survey finds
From left: Stephen Ferley and Michael Ennamorato are researchers based in Niagara-on-the-Lake who conducted a survey of nearly 600 residents in town. SUPPLIED

Older residents cherish their independence and want options to stay


Independence. Health care. Social relationships.

The desires, needs and focus of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s aging populace can be summed up in those three points, according to a comprehensive survey conducted by two leading Canadian researchers.

Last fall the survey, led by NOTL-based researchers Michael Ennamorato and Stephen Ferley, gathered responses from nearly 600 residents who answered questions about their future housing needs in town.


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The data, analyzed with the help of Niagara College Prof. Nick Farnell and his post-graduate students, paints a picture of how residents 55 and up feel about their options in the community — and possibly what direction real estate developers and various levels of government might go in trying to meet those needs.

With 587 responses, it is the most in-depth poll on seniors housing ever conducted in town and was spearheaded by a committee of interested residents who recognized that quantified and objective data was required in order to plan for the future.

“Independence is the dominant element of housing,” says a summary of Ennamorato and Ferley’s findings, and it “drives NOTL seniors’ future needs and desires.”

Having ready access to health care options — not necessarily a local hospital but secondary care like testing facilities and physio or other clinics — is “critical” and closely linked NOTL seniors’ ideas of independence.

That access “increasingly permeates considerations of housing sustainability and overall quality of life” as residents age, the survey found.

And the notion of community — a strong wish to stay in NOTL and ideally in their current area of town — is a driving desire for many respondents.

Being close “to friends and social life, as well as leisure and recreational activities” is a high priority.

“This line of thinking does vary to some degree among communities (within NOTL), with seniors living in Old Town tending to be more adamant than those residing elsewhere about staying within their local community,” the survey summary says.

But such sentiments are prevalent in all areas across town.


Most have no firm plans in place — yet


While the survey gauged the priorities of senior residents, it also found only 10 per cent of them have “done everything that is necessary” to plan their housing needs.

Typically, they “appear to recognize that change will be necessary,” but have no firm plans in place.

As well, few say they are well-informed about their options, clearly showing there is a “knowledge and preparedness gap” — and that could have future consequences, the researchers say.

Ennamorato noted that 51 per cent rate staying in town at 10/10 for importance.

“Moreover, the large majority of these individuals are highly localized in their thinking, assigning the highest possible importance score to the idea of staying in their specific community within NOTL,” he told The Lake Report.

Bottom line, staying in the same neighbourhood is really important to many people.

In contrast, only 13 per cent of seniors give staying in NOTL a relatively low rating for importance at 6/10 or lower.

“That’s why the tension between the necessity of having access to health care and other supports versus staying in NOTL is so significant. It affects very many seniors,” Ennamorato said.

Apart from finding the supports needed to stay in their present home, more than 50 per cent of NOTL seniors figure they eventually will move to a smaller, more manageable home or to a multi-unit building “with more robust immediate and centralized services.”

These changes could be sequential, downsizing initially and then moving into a multi-purpose dwelling.

But over the next five years, only 36 per cent of NOTL seniors are contemplating changing their living arrangements.

“Few seniors currently give active thought to more innovative possible moves such as accommodation in a ‘granny flat’ or joining a co-operative housing arrangement with other seniors,” the researchers say.

However, they are realistic about the need eventually to move to more communal accommodation offering centralized care, Ennamorato said.

“But here, too, the desire is to retain as much independence as possible and have the freedom to add supports from a range of options on an as-needed basis.”


Deep concerns about housing options 


Overall, older residents have deep concerns about what future housing options will be available in NOTL.

Almost half (45 per cent) doubt that the type of assisted living they’ll need will exist in town.

As to who can make that happen, a whopping 90 per cent of respondents said the Town of NOTL needs to do more to ensure there’s “an adequate supply of assisted-living options.”

That belief is almost universal — 93 per cent — among those who consider it important to stay in NOTL.

Ferley said it’s also important to note that as many as 78 per cent of the NOTL seniors who may be less inclined to stay in town through the aging process believe the municipality should be doing more on the assisted-living front.

This could be contributing to their lack of commitment to staying in town, he said.

The committee that inspired the survey includes Robert Bader, Al Bisback, Fran Boot, Cindy Grant, Bill Halpenny, Sandra Hardy, Terry Mactaggart, Sandra O’Connor, Tom Smith, Tim Taylor and Peggy Walker.

The survey and analysis was all done pro bono and would have cost about $80,000 to hire a survey firm to do the work, Ennamorato said.

The aim of the project was to understand the evolving requirements of seniors and what they need to maintain their quality of life as they get older, Grant said last November when the survey was launched.

“Niagara-on-the-Lake has one of the highest percentages of aging seniors in the country, many of whom wish to remain in our community, but the options are limited,” she said.


Many, but not all, feel financially secure

Niagara-on-the-Lake is often viewed as an influential, well-to-do community. And in many pockets of town, that is definitely true.

However, a minority of NOTL seniors — 28 per cent — has assets of less than $1 million and are “less confident about satisfying their future housing and assistance needs,” the survey of seniors’ future housing needs finds.

The researchers note it is somewhat significant that the less financially secure cohort is more likely to be a woman, living alone and be age 75 or more.

In many cases, the report finds that a sizable chunk of people’s net worth is tied up in their home.

About three-quarters of NOTL seniors claim to have assets of more than $1 million and 40 per cent say their total is more than $2 million.

Coupled with that, just over half of seniors (56 per cent) say they are financially secure.

“This solid financial underpinning is common across both Old Town and other NOTL communities,” the report says.

What about the rest?

About 39 per cent say their financial situation is under control but they need to be careful.

In addition, few NOTL seniors think they will have any trouble selling their home when the time comes to downsize or move elsewhere.

Another group, those who say they are likely to move elsewhere to be closer to family or other supports, is relatively small, at 25 per cent.

This total is even smaller among rural seniors, where only 13 per cent figures they might have to pull up stakes.

“For many rural seniors, moving to a smaller, more manageable home very near one’s current place of residences is preferable” to a long-term care or retirement home.

— Kevin MacLean


By the numbers: 53% of NOTLers are 55-plus

Niagara-on-the-Lake’s population in 2024 is estimated at 20,863, according to Statistics Canada’s 2021 census data, together with estimates from the province and Niagara Region, the researchers say.

Of that, 53 per cent (11,028) are 55 and over, while 16 per cent (3,398) are 75 and up.

By 2041, the town’s population is expected to grow 24 per cent to 25,850 and those 75-plus are projected to comprise almost one-quarter of the population, at 5,887.

The census shows 79 per cent of NOTLers live in single-detached homes, but 70 per cent of those homes have no more than two people in them. And three-quarters of them have three bedrooms.

In addition, the primary maintainer is 55-plus in 73 per cent of households, and more than half are over 65.

Those numbers highlight some potential problems.

The data, all contained in the report by researchers Michael Ennamorato and Stephen Ferley, “suggests that the existing housing stock may not be sufficiently diverse or adequately serviced to address the increasing wave of age-related needs” expected to wash over NOTL.

Their report analyzes those issues and shines a light on some of the potential solutions.

— Kevin MacLean

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