New neighbours

Finding just the right home in the Arizona sun for her parents was an eye-opener for newly-graduated architect, Mary Rose. Back then, in 1965, the concept of the Sunbelt’s retirement communities hadn’t arrived in Canada. “Shopping around with mom and dad made me really start to take note of what was going on,” Rose recalls. In fact, her parents’ almost 20-year involvement in their community would sustain her career-long interest in retirement housing.

Communities dedicated to older, retired adults first made their appearance in the United States in the 1920s. Nearly 50 years later, in 1970, Sandycove Acres became the first significant retirement development in Ontario. Although most of the 50-plus population does not live in these communities, it’s one housing option that has become increasingly popular.

Mary Rose’s parents chose a townhouse — “more like an attached bungalow,” she says — in a 1,000-unit community in Scottsdale. They took pleasure in the privacy of their own small, walled courtyard yet welcomed the activities at the local “ramada”, a recreational facility that included a swimming pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and a landscaped area with barbecues.

Residts also patronized an on-site, small shopping centre and enjoyed the communal golf course. “My parents didn’t golf, but because they were part of the community, they could go there for lunches or dinners — and the course itself provided nice green space,” says Rose.

Friendships were important, too, in providing needed emotional support as people lost spouses. (Noting that women still tend to live longer than men, Rose says single women felt quite comfortable there, attending social events where there were mostly couples, “because they were all neighbours.”)

Greater range of housing
As a greater percentage of Canada’s population moves into their 50-plus years (the number of people 55 and older is expected to grow by 116 per cent by 2026, while the country’s overall population will increase by 33 per cent), retirement communities are changing to meet the needs of this diverse group of people. There’s a greater range of housing available, including mobile home parks, single family units on one or two floors, and low-rise condos. These communities have traditionally appealed to middle and upper middle income families but through creative arrangements some are accessible to people of more modest means. Some communities even offer various levels of care for residents as they become infirm.

Lower land costs in rural areas have meant that retirement communities in those locations have been more affordable than similar housing closer to or in large urban settings. Rose says some older people are taking advantage of the price differential as a kind of retirement plan, selling an average house in a big city like Toronto to move to a retirement community or small city like Orillia. There they buy “a comparable house for an awful lot less — and have something left over.”

Rural communities also attract healthy, active 50-plussers who want to live in areas in which they’ve vacationed over the years. Many may not be fully retired and, with today’s technology, either work from a home office or commute only occasionally to the city. (Home may be a ski chalet or a winterized cottage in a community marketed as a “leisure living recreational” development.)

“A lot of retirement communities have sold based on the easy lifestyle,” says Rose. “Somebody will cut the grass, somebody will shovel the snow. Go to Florida. We’ll look after your unit.” These people don’t want to be reminded that someday they may need care, so there’s no end-of-the-road capacity, no attention paid to future needs.

New neighbours mean change
While retirement communities provide homes for retiring farmers and other local people, the influx of a significant number of new residents can force changes in nearby existing communities — and not all of them are welcome. Heavier traffic on township roads, increased burden on healthcare facilities and different political viewpoints between rural old-timers and urban newcomers are all potential sources of friction. As well, there is growing concern that these and other developments may cause serious, even irreparable, damage to the land and to water supplies for a growing population.

Next page: Good news for communities

But for the most part, asserts Rose, “the really good thing about a retirement community is that aside from health services, it places very little demand on [small communities]. These people are not coming in to take jobs away from local people. If anything, they create jobs.”

As long as the community has adequate places to shop, they spend their money in local stores. Retirement community residents also provide a source for volunteer positions, join local churches and take part in community events. They contribute to the municipal tax base yet don’t cause a demand for more schools. Their presence might also be considered an argument for maintaining healthcare facilities such as community hospitals, rather than closing them — since healthcare has a very high priority among seniors.

“Healthcare, to this point,” says Rose, “has been a provincial responsibility, rather than that of the local community.”

Rose began her career as an architect, combining her love of art with her desire to be an engineer. “Back in the dark ages,” she smiles, “[engineering] wasn’t the thing a woman should do.” Dealing extensively with municipal planners during hospital and university construction projects, she eventually took a leave of absence, obtaining a Masters degree in urban and regional planning. She became a partner in a large firm, leaving after 23 years to become a caregiver for her mother. Now, operating her own business from her home overlooking Lake Simcoe near Orillia, Rose frequently works on planning projects for various townships too small to have a planner on staff.

Her expertise surprised a developer who was pushing for the township’s approval for a large project.

Long-term planning
“Everyone wants everything approved,” she says, shaking her head. “I wanted it phased, in case something went wrong and the township had to take it over. Through marketing studies around Ontario you know roughly how many units can be sold a year. Why approve development 15 or 20 years down the line? Approve for five or six and if it’s satisfactory, approve the next phase, in ample time.

“Tie the recreation component and the community commercial component to the development,” she advises. “Don’t say that after 500 units are built we’re going to build a tennis court and swimming pool. In this case, council is saying exactly that to the developer: “We want to know precisely what you’re going to provide with the first 200 units.” That will be part of the development agreement.

“I’m leaning very much on the side of more detailed planning up front and more studies… I think that’s fair. It’s ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’”

Rose advises potential buyers to go to the municipal offices and try and find out what has been approved and what the long-term plans are for the community. “Some of them may have been marketed for 200 units,” she comments, “but the long-term plan might be for 1,200 units.”

As a planner, Rose wonders about the future of retirement communities, especially those built “in the middle of nowhere”. Will they dwindle to ghost towns after the baby boomers and the “echo” boomers pass on?

“To some degree,” she says, “we have to think very long term.

“They still may be used if communications are so good,” says Rose. “Maybe people other than seniors will want to live in them. The long-term future is the biggest issue of all.”