Skip to content

Deciphering Alberta's continuing care system

Caregiver columnist Rick Lauber examines the housing options for seniors. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

What is the difference between assisted living and supportive living for seniors? What is the best choice for an aging senior requiring continuing care within Alberta? How does a senior access our continuing care system?

"Our province’s senior care options fall into three navigational categories," explained Irene Martin-Lindsay – Executive Director of The Alberta Seniors & Community Housing Association (ASCHA). “Seniors Housing – Accommodation Only provides housing; no services or health care supports. This includes apartments where seniors contract their own services (like Meals on Wheels) or health care supports (like home care)," she said. "Some of these options might be publicly funded--operated by management bodies or non-profit groups--or owned and operated by private providers. Private providers offer options for those that do not qualify for affordable housing--spaces that the public sector cannot provide.”

Seniors with intermediate care needs can choose “Seniors Housing with Service Options”, continued Martin-Lindsay. Here, “the provider offers accommodation as well as housekeeping, meals, recreation, laundry, etc.” Common terms for such facilities include supportive living, assisted living, and/or retirement communities.

“If a provider offers housekeeping services and at least one meal a day, they must be licensed under the Supportive Living Act and are technically ‘licensed supportive living’. These spaces are operated by public providers, voluntary (non-profit or faith-based groups) and the private sector. Private and non-profit housing fills gaps for seniors that may not qualify for government programs," she added. 

When my parents were alive, they entered Alberta’s care system at this level. Their home featured independent apartments, care and cleaning staff, a visiting doctor and LPN, as well as a common dining room so residents would not have to cook and could enjoy more socialization over meals. This was not a permanent address for my parents: due to his advancing Alzheimer’s disease, my father had to be moved twice again following my mother’s death.

Finally, there is Seniors Housing with Service Options and Health Supports: "This covers options like on-site homecare service, Alberta Health Services (AHS)-delivered health supports and health care aides that work on site, all the way up to higher care options provided by LPNs”, said Martin-Lindsay.

"You will hear of memory care options, designated supportive living (these are spaces contracted by, but not necessarily run by AHS), and higher levels of supportive living where health supports are offered by the provider. Then you have long-term care – which is more facility-based living. This is the highest level of Seniors Housing with Service Options and Health Supports, but in this case, the senior is assessed and placed into long term care.”

Assessment is often the first step to enter Alberta’s continuing care system. This process may seem invasive, but it is necessary to ensure the best fit for physical and/or mental health support. Martin-Lindsay advises seniors to call AHS 1-888-342-2471 or ask their doctor for a health assessment. 

Seniors must have active voices about their own continuing care, said Martin-Lindsay. “We like to emphasize that it should be the senior’s choice. And this is why decisions should be made early, while it is the senior’s choice to make, not the caregiver's. Have the conversations now: Start thinking about what you want, and how you want to live out your senior years.

"Get out and tour sites, talk to folks who live there, find out what their experience is. Thinking - and acting - ahead are vital. Don’t wait for an emergency to plan.”

Rick Lauber has written two books, Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians and The Successful Caregiver’s Guide (Self-Counsel Press) as valuable resources for prospective, new, and current caregivers. As Alberta Prime Times’ Caregiver Coach, Lauber shares caregiving news, thoughts, and insights on a bi-monthly basis. See more at