PERTH - To avoid the pitfalls of building accessible housing for seniors, ask those who have already been down the rabbit hole.
Accessible Housing for Seniors.
Tim Dowell, property manager for the Mills Community Support Corporation, spoke out on accessible housing for seniors at the Tools for Rural Housing Development conference at the Perth Civitan Club hall on Thursday, Feb. 7, which was sponsored by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
For example, what would be an annoyance in any other apartment building, becomes a major hindrance on quality of life for a seniors’ building.
"When the elevator goes down, I wish we had two elevators because when it goes down, it becomes very evident in a seniors’ building," said Tim Dowell, property manager for the Mills Community Support Corporation of their 134-united seniors’ housing building in Almonte. He, along with Wendy Powell, seniors’ services manager for the Mills, were on hand last month to detail what works, and does not work, when it comes to building accessible housing.
They should know, since the Mills is the second largest non-profit housing provider in the county.
All told, the building, opened on Nov. 1, 2011, cost $3.2 million, and was built on time and on budget, partially thanks to the town of Mississippi Mills reducing permit fees and development charges.
But just as any construction or renovation project comes with its own headaches, a seniors building comes with its own challenges.
"When the building was designed, it had bathtubs," said Dowell, during a presentation at the Tools for Rural Housing Development conference at the Perth Civitan Club hall on Thursday, Feb. 7, which was sponsored by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Seniors need walk-in showers instead, so the Mills worked with the builder to make this accommodation work. There are now three barrier-free units in the building, which as populated by lottery.
"That speaks to the demand for housing," said Dowell. "I felt it was the fairest way of doing it. I hemmed and I hawed and finally said 'I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't,' so I just went with it."
However, even having bi-weekly, on-site meetings with the developers and workers, which helped clear up a lot of miscommunication and fix problems, sometimes before they even start, didn't stop all problems.
In order to open by the Oct. 31 vacancy date, they needed a gas permit - which they got, finally, on Oct. 30.
"Some political press and scare tactics that worked up the food chain (helped),” said Dowell, who reminded others looking at seniors’ housing that "other services may not have the same sense of urgency as you do."
They did have a Plan B however, to revert to propane heating, if needed.
“Expect curves to be thrown at you,” said Dowell, like the wrong type of siding showing up. “Be prepared for all of the little quirks.”
Another bureaucratic hurdle that needed tending to required them to hire a tree consultant to prove that a tree on the property needed to be cut down because it would not have survived the build.
Just as it takes money to make money, the more expensive, though environmentally sensitive, option, may pay more dividends over time. About $20,000 was spent in going with spray foam insulation in stead of batting insulation, since it is more energy efficient.
Phase three of the project kicked off last February, with building costing and plans in the framing stages. This year, the Mills will apply for CMHC seed funding.
“We are not sure where it will be put but we are taking suggestions,” said Dowell.
A conference attendee asked why, in a building filled with seniors, was the building multi-storey, when they could have built out, instead of up.
“We were confined with the land we had to build on,” said Dowell. “We were constrained with the property line.”
Dowell admitted that fires are a concern, getting a population that is more likely to have mobility issues down from a higher altitude, but residents have been told to stand on the balcony to wait for help, and that they have already done a dry run with the Mississippi Mills fire department.
“It’s not a perfect world,” said Dowell, who added that the building was not a care facility but rather an independent living building.
Powell stressed that the Mills tries to not see seniors as “the problem,” that has to be solved, or shoved into a particular box, but rather as a person, whom they talk with, and find out their wants, needs, desires, and dislikes, when arranging for things like, say, homecare.
It is not, she stressed, “we will be here at 8 a.m. to give you your shower, then it’s breakfast at 8:15, then we are out of here by 8:30,” she said. Their preferred way is to work with the needs of the patient, who might be more alert at 10 a.m., or, as a night owl, might be more open to evening visits.
“How can I support you to lead a good life at home today,” is the message Powell says she gives to visiting personal support workers.