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Edmonton and Calgary councils put senior's issues on the agenda

From transit to housing, new faces at Edmonton and Calgary city councils place issues affecting seniors on the front burner.
Prospects for progress on issues affecting seniors have taken a leap forward thanks to the October municipal elections, says an Edmonton city councillor.

Coun. Andrew Knack, who has been a lead Seniors Initiative council representative over the last eight years, says the more diverse makeup of council makes him hopeful strides can be made on social issues, including flaws in public transit and housing for seniors.

"I think this council is going to be able to achieve things that maybe no other council has been able to because of the range of perspectives and experiences," said Knack in an interview.

Edmonton's new 12-member city council has a record eight women, compared to two on the previous council. Mayor Amarjeet Sohi is the city's first mayor of South Asian origin and four council members--including Sohi--are people of colour. The others are Karen Tang, Aaron Paquette and Jennifer Rice.

Transit, snow removal and backyard suites 

Knack says he is confident issues affecting seniors, like more prompt snow removal and sidewalk repair, will be addressed.

Flaws in the city's new on-demand transit service also require fixing, he added. While the seven-day-a-week service has some benefits, there are shortcomings around hours of service and lack of route locations that are of concern to many seniors.

 Knack says he heard from voters during the lead-up to the October election the 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on-demand transit service is inadequate, and he is hopeful the service will be extended beyond those hours.

"I still take great issue with that because I think seniors have lives beyond four o'clock," he said. "I think our transit system, and any other system we are offering our seniors, has to reflect that."

 As well, while on-demand adequately serves some key hubs like Westmount and Jasper Place in the west end, others like Meadowlark Mall--where important health services are offered--aren't accessible by the service. "It's not perfect yet in a number of areas," Knack said.

Senior housing

Knack says while greater access to affordable housing needs to be addressed, seniors want options beyond supportive and independent living residences so they can adequately age in place.

"Mature communities tend not to have many options other than bungalows built in the 1950s or 1960s, or three-storey walk-ups lacking elevators, which aren't ideal for seniors with mobility issues. New types of accessible "court-yard" housing, containing duplexes and single-storey housing that operate more like condo developments, need to be explored," said Knack. 

"That's actually the biggest issue I hear about. If you're a senior who doesn't necessarily want to move into residence yet, there's very few options in between."

Calgary laneway houses keep seniors close to family

In Calgary, the election brought the biggest city council turnover in decades, with 10 retiring or defeated council members, including the mayor. 

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra, re-elected for a fourth term, says he is hopeful the new council will push ahead with support for innovative housing for seniors.

That includes affordable housing and innovative high-tech-type "laneway houses" or "garden cottages" designed as supportive housing for aging adults.

"You have seniors on fixed incomes living in houses that don't work for them," said Carra. "And they can't let go because they've got no place to go."

The laneway house concept, initially developed by environmental design researchers at the University of Calgary with input from the medical faculty, involves building 400-to-500-square-foot mobile, prefabricated cottages that can be leased and placed temporarily in backyards--usually the homes of younger relatives. 

Units can be customized to include assistive elements like grab bars, accessible lighting and medical equipment like dialysis and oxygen machines, or heart monitoring devices. 

John Brown, dean of the University of Calgary school of architecture, planning and design, describes the units as "a medical device that someone would live in."

Cara sponsored a motion that made the City administrative partners in a pilot project for the new homes, which have since been tested on two properties, with input from health and medical advisers. The City advised how to make the suites comply with building code standards as they use an "umbilical cord" system with the adjacent main house for utilities.

Units are being marketed by a company founded by Brown and private partners, who recently made their first two sales to individual families with construction to start in the new year. The start-up firm has attracted interest from several provinces, says Brown, who describes Calgary's support as "really important" to the growth of the enterprise.

 "I'm a huge supporter of the project," said Carra, adding the suites may be particularly attractive in rural communities where seniors wouldn't have to be re-located long distances away from families.