Seniors Living in Condos: The Pros and Cons

Canada’s population is growing older and the pace of demographic change – particularly in Ontario – is accelerating. In fact, new census numbers show the province is now home to more people over 65 than children under 15.

And while the proportion of seniors in most regions of the GTA is slightly lower than the Canadian average, older homeowners looking to cash in on the region’s sizzling housing market may not be thinking far enough down the road – particularly if they’re leaning towards downsizing into a downtown Toronto condo.

Experts say it’s important for downsizing seniors to think about the lifestyle they’re buying, not just the condo’s hip location. While many condo developments are marketed to mature and more affluent buyers, for instance, most are really available to anyone – even those with a stack of kids – who can pay the freight.

The Search for Compatible Neighbours

If seniors truly want only same-age neighbours, they need to carefully explore the ins and outs of target-marketed projects. That’s what Toronto retirees Bob and Roz Holden did recently. For them, downsizing to a two-bedroom metro condo was the perfect solution: no maintenance, improved security, lock and leave travel – along with affable, like-minded neighbours.

But, still healthy and only in their early 70s, this couple may not be fully representative of the coming age wave – seniors that don’t need care now, but may in future. The growing number of seniors living alone in condos, often without any family or friends nearby, is already creating serious problems for condo boards, says Toronto lawyer Megan Mackey.

Growing Legal Issues for Condo Boards

She expects to see several legal issues arising from the influx of seniors into condos that may be poorly equipped to meet their ongoing needs. “People with dementia are being moved into condos by their families and some families expect the condo corporation to keep an eye on them … but they shouldn’t; that’s not the condo’s job,” she told the CBC recently.

Physical impairments and mental illnesses, including dementia, are considered disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code though, and condo corporations have a legal obligation to accommodate people with these disabilities. This might mean permitting modifications of individual units or extensive revamping of common elements as well.

As a result, condo boards will need to develop policies and procedures for dealing with the aging owners. She suggests condo managers get next-of-kin information immediately when someone moves in, so if that person starts having issues as they age, the family can be easily reached to open a dialogue. But that doesn’t address the issue of whether they should have moved there in the first place.

Condo Life Is Not for Everybody

As thousands of these aging homeowners flock to vertical communities for the promise of carefree living, they’re learning that life in a condo is far different from the suburban houses where so many of them have spent most of their lives.

While it’s true that condo living usually means less maintenance, that act of sharing general household expenses with your neighbours comes with a hefty price and an extensive laundry list of rules governing what owners can and can’t do with their property. That’s something many older buyers may struggle with.

In the ideal, downsizing to the right condo can introduce older homeowners to a community of compatible individuals who look out for each other. After all, active living, staying engaged and maintaining social connections is what keeps older people healthy.

Loneliness Often an Issue

But will condo living actually satisfy these needs? It certainly can, but when it doesn’t the consequences can be dire. A lack of social connection and support is linked to a whole host of negative outcomes, including depression, poor health, and a lower quality of life.

Realizing this, some downsizers are looking at more community-minded options. At Canopy Co-housing, for instance, a group of like-minded Torontonians are pooling financial resources to design and build a complex similar to a low-rise condo. In addition to the individual dwellings, the development also includes a common space where aging-in-place residents gather and prepare regularly scheduled community meals in a communal kitchen.

There are hundreds of such co-housing communities across Europe, but as yet only a handful in Canada – one of which is Toronto’s Bethel Green, a church-owned site on Millwood Road that includes a re-developed Bethel Baptist Church along with 19 self-contained “life lease” units designed for seniors.

Life leases an emerging option

Under life lease arrangements, residents pay a lump sum for the right to occupy their units for life rather than owning the unit itself. As with a condo, they pay maintenance fees and property taxes, but are not allowed to take out a mortgage on their units. Owners, or their heirs, are free though to sell the unit at market value to those who qualify.

Unlike conventional condo boards, life lease boards are allowed to limit occupancy to people of a certain age and prevent units from being rented out – an important distinction for those seniors looking for a more familiar and homogeneous environment.

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