Rural Aging in Place: Exploring Alternative Rural Housing Options for Seniors in the Comox Valley

By Analisa Blake & Michelle Sandsmark

Our population is aging, and in 20 years, the population over 75 years of age is expected to grow at three times the rate of the population as a whole. 

Meeting the needs of our aging population will be one of the biggest challenges of the coming decades especially for rural communities where amenities are far flung.The Comox Valley Regional District is one of many regions faced with this challenge, and has been engaging residents in an effort to take steps toward positive and innovative solutions.

With support from PlanH and the BC Healthy Communities Society, the CVRD and Island Health came together to host a participatory workshop; Rural Aging in Place: Exploring alternative rural housing options for seniors in the Comox Valley Regional District. Planners, health professionals, social service agencies and rural residents gathered at the Creekside Commons Cohousing Community located on the outskirts of Courtenay BC, a perfect setting for discussing contemporary solutions for aging-in-place.

Opening the day; CVRD Chair Bruce Jollife – and Area C Director,  Edwin Grieve  spoke to the realities of aging in the Comox Valley driving home a clear message that people in the Comox Valley want to age in place; but the challenge is maintaining quality of life.

“The greatest fear expressed by seniors is going into a facility,” stated Jennifer Pass, former coordinator of the local Support Our Seniors Society, “we need to be imaginative!” As Pass presented the challenges of helping seniors in the region to age-in-place, this set the stage for discussing imaginative solutions to help seniors age-in-place with a high quality-of-life. Cohousing was one such solution that was discussed in depth throughout the day.

Cohousing is a type of intentional housing comprised of private homes supplemented by cooperative facilities such as kitchens, social spaces, laundry, childcare facilities, offices, guest rooms, and recreational facilities. Cohousing developments are planned, owned and managed by the residents.

The greatest fear expressed by seniors is going into a facility – we need to be imaginative!” — Jennifer Pass, Support Our Seniors

While the day was packed with informative presentations and compelling discussion, attendees were also given the opportunity to explore the grounds of the Creekside Commons Community. As participants toured, it became very apparent that this model for housing is one that generates a true sense of belonging, connectedness and support amongst residents. There is a common kitchen and extensive gardening plots for people to share food and meals, and a workshop filled with every tool imaginable- all of which were contributed by the community members. Creekside Commons is an incredible cohousing community, and this model of housing is gaining more attention in North America. This model is already well established throughout Europe and has trickled to other regions of the world.

Presenter Margaret Critchlow of the Canadian Seniors Cohousing Society emphasized how cohousing can be a good option for rural seniors seeking support and connection, but also allows them to maintain a rural lifestyle. Critchlow is a resident of Sooke Harbourside Cohousing which is located on a two-acre waterfront property. There is plenty of space to enjoy the stunning natural surroundings, fun social gatherings and her home.

In the Comox Valley Regional District, planners and staff are working to make cohousing a more feasible option by creating housing policies within their Rural Official Community Plan and identifying bylaws that will allow for more cohousing neighbourhoods to be developed. “[This workshop] increased positive feelings knowing so many organizations and government departments are actually thinking ahead about the need to help us all age in place,” expressed one participant.

As the day wound down, Dr. Charmaine Enns, Island Health’s Medical Health Officer for the North Island, left participants with a potent message. She expressed the great need for communities to work across sectors to develop and implement innovative ideas, such as cohousing, to address root causes of health. She also urged participants to take an upstream, prevention approach to improve older adults’ quality of life. This message was met with a resounding applause- it was clear that these thoughts resonated with participants, and many were excited to take what they learned forward. 

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