Aging Alone Together
Much has been made of Toronto's fascination with high-rise living, especially among millennials and young professionals. But hidden beneath the broader trend towards vertical living is a population of aging boomers set to leave their homes.
Between 2006 and 2016, the number of high-rise apartment units headed by a senior grew by 28 percent. This is significantly more than the general increase in the seniors population, suggesting a shift in housing choices towards vertical living.
Within the boundaries of the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), the downtown core of the city, there are now over 200 apartment, condo, and co-op buildings where at least 40 percent of the residents are seniors. According to the 2016 census,
1 IN 4 TORONTONIANS
OVER THE AGE OF 65 LIVE ALONE.
Instead of living alone in their own homes, many aging Torontonians are now living alone in the city's growing number of highrises.
Suburban cul-de-sacs are giving way to towering slabs of concrete.
When Arlene Noble left her home in Collingwood for an aprtment in Toronto in 2015, the change felt overwhelming. For the 76-year-old former elementary school teacher, moving to an apartment at Yonge and St. Clair with her dog, Luke, meant leaving part of her life behind.
When Luke died last January, her world shrunk just a little more.
"I lost my reason to get out and
walk for an hour and a half everyday"
Noble says. She resisted getting another dog, knowing that apartment living is hard on animals.
A 2014 report by the Government of Canada's National Seniors Council found that isolated seniors are at a higher risk of engaging in unhealthy behaviours such as drinking, smoking, being sedentary, and having poor eating habits.
They're also more likely to experience falls, and are four-to-give times more likely to be hospitalized.
Another recent study found that social isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.
When seniors live right next to each other, separated by just a wall or a ceiling, it opens up possibilities for overcoming isolation. However, according to Jessica Govea, even living in close proximity doesn't always guarantee social contact.
Govea manages the maintenance team at a large apartment complex in the Bathurst and St. Clair area. Seniors make up 47 percent of the tenants. With over 700 individuals over the age of 65, the complex is home to the largest number of seniors of any building in the city that's not a long-term care facility.
Govea grew up in Guayaquil, a coastal city in Ecuador roughly the size of Toronto. When she arrived in Canada twelve years ago, she remembers being struck by how much Canadians kept to themselves.
"Here, people are more reserved," says Govea.
"They don't open up easily unless they really know you."
She says this makes it difficult for a lot of seniors to build social connections, even though there are so many of them living in the same building.
They experience the paradox of social isolation in the big city -- the oxymoron of being alone, together.
Many seniors block to apartments in older buildings because of their larger size and cheaper rent, the so-called "post-war apartment towers" built between 1945 and 1984 that are scattered across Toronto.
The buildings were the result of planning policies that encouraged the modernist "tower-in-the-park" housing model -- apartment clusters built in single-use residential areas, often far from amenities.
In contrast to the present-day emphasis on mixed-use development, these bedroom communities were heavily dependent on the automobile to connect the home in one part of the city to the workplace and services in another. For seniors with reduced mobility, this kind of physical isolation can perpetuate social isolation.
Older buildings also face internal issues like broken elevators, which affect seniors more than the general population.
A United Way survey from 2011 found that residents of a third of these buildings reported frequent elevator breakdowns, and the problem was worse in buildings located in low-income neighborhoods.
The study also found that close to half of the buildings had neither common rooms nor recreational spaces that encourage social interactions.
For seniors who already have a hard time getting out,
This makes it too easy to just become shut-ins.
Among Toronto seniors who still live independently, 36 percent live in buildings five storeys or taller. (Census, 2016).
Today, 143,000 Toronto seniors live in buildings five storeys or taller -- more than a third of all seniors who still live independently.
This number is on the rise.
No other Canadian city comes close to matching the urban density seen in Toronto's seniors population.
In May, the Ministry of Seniors Affairs announced that it was investing $8.8 million to support a number of naturally occuring retirement communities -- apartment buildings where many seniors already live close to one another.
It remains to be seen what happens to the provincial initiative with the change in government.
With just another ten years to go before the peak of the boomer generation moves into retirement age, there's little time to waste.
Adapted from an article by Tai Huynh. Editor-In-Chief of The Local