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‘Service Co-op’ Helps Calgary Seniors Stay in the ‘Hood

Whether it’s keeping up with maintenance or downsizing, ‘Aging in Place’ co-op aims to keep seniors at home.

By Katie Hyslop 2 Feb 2017 |

Katie Hyslop reports on affordable housing for the Housing Fix. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

2016-17 funders of the Housing Fix are Vancity Credit Union, Catherine Donnelly Foundation and the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., in collaboration with Columbia Institute. Funders of special solutions reporting projects neither influence nor endorse the particular content of our reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this article or other Housing Fix articles, please contact solutions editor Chris Wood here.

Three years ago, Lindsay Luhnau and Marianne Wilkat tried to create some seniors’ housing in Southeast Calgary’s Ogden Lynwood neighbourhood. And they failed.

“I really loved the community, it’s actually where my dad grew up,” said Luhnau. Working for a city councillor at the time, Luhnau was helping Wilkat, then president of the Ogden Seniors House recreation centre, secure land where they hoped to see seniors housing built. The plan was to help seniors downsize in their own neighbourhood.

“I really understood how difficult looking for housing can be, and how unfair it is to have to move so far away from a neighbourhood where you had lived your whole life,” said Luhnau. “You raised your children, you’re part of the church, you’re part of the community.

“You’re the fabric of the neighbourhood.”

When their search for land fell through, though, Luhnau and Wilkat didn’t give up. With the help of a $20,000 grant from the B.C. Co-operative Association, which distributed similar federally funded grants in every province west of Manitoba, Luhnau and Wilkat created Calgary Aging in Place, a service co-op for elderly homeowners and renters.

Here’s how it works. There are two tiers of co-op membership, each with an annual $60 fee. The first tier offers service procurement. For those members, the co-op will find and vet prospective service providers such as landscapers, roofers, and house cleaners — including checking whether they have criminal records, and to ensure they have the appropriate insurance.

The second membership tier is for any homeowner who wants to create a secondary or backyard suite, either to rent out or as a place to downsize into themselves. The co-op will file the necessary rezoning paperwork to get a suite approved, and can also oversee the conversion project, and assume management of the suite until a member is ready to move in or manage it themselves.

The aim is to reduce the stress and strain of maintaining any size of household for people who want to “age in place,” said Luhnau.

“There’s a trust issue,” Luhnau says. Seniors “don’t know who to call for their services or if they’re getting a good price.

“And if something goes wrong, they don’t want to get into a confrontation with the contractors. So you join the co-operative, and then all your bills come from the co-operative, and we deal with the contractors for you.”

Sniffing out service scams

While there are services like this already for low-income seniors, Calgary Aging in Place fills a service gap for middle class seniors in Calgary, said Luhnau. There is no upper or lower income limit to join.

Service providers must also become co-op members. Currently there are nine who offer services like house cleaning, flooring, electrical work, carpentry, plumbing, painting, yard work, and home maintenance.

At 70, board member Elizabeth Rodier can manage the yard work and house cleaning on her own. But her 97-year-old mother, who lives alone in the home Rodier grew up in, benefits from cleaning and window cleaning arranged through the co-op. It takes a weight off Rodier’s shoulders.*

“The internet has ads for people who claim to have services, but it’s very hard to figure out if they’re a real company,” she said.

Service scams are not unheard of in Calgary. Rodier could list a recent string of fake energy inspectors going door-to-door swindling naïve homeowners into renting un-necessary new furnaces, water heaters, or air conditioners for exorbitant fees.

Entrepreneur Jill Moreton understands seniors’ trepidation over scheduling their own services.

“Most companies don’t want to do the small jobs, and they can be intimidating [to seniors],” said the self-employed Calgary gardener, one of the co-op’s newest service provider members.

“Both being a woman, and having a non-profit and counselling background, I was able to make people feel comfortable, allay their fears, and recognized that maybe they needed a while before they trusted me.”

Moreton encourages other businesses to consider joining the co-op, even if it’s not a particularly lucrative venture.

“Think of it as an opportunity to give back to the community,” she said. “If you care about seniors, or even your own parents, you’d like to think somebody would be there for them.”

Secondary suite set-up

Co-op member Anna Black, 73, has lived in her two-storey home in Calgary’s Douglasdale Estates for 30 years. She lives alone, and can still mow the lawn and shovel the driveway herself. But she knows that won’t always be the case.

“Just talking with friends, we talk about we’re going to downsize and ‘how are we going to go about it?’” said Black, whose son and daughter-in-law plan to buy her house, where Black will live in a secondary suite in the basement.

But building a secondary suite is complicated in Calgary, where neighbourhoods of single-family homes are zoned for one unit per lot, and re-zoning applications must go through city council.

Black was inspired to join the co-op last fall, after seeing how her friend, co-op co-founder Wilkat, had used it to build her own secondary suite. Luhnau began the re-zoning process right away, said Black.

“It went through the planning commission January 12, and now it’s going before council in March. It was so fast!” said Black.

Black’s annual membership fee covers administrative costs.* But it also includes the option of having the co-op act as project manager for suite construction: vetting and hiring contractors who specialize in building accessible suites; ensuring the job is done to the member’s satisfaction.

If Black wanted to rent the suite out as an extra source of income, Calgary Aging in Place co-op will also act as property manager, taking care of the landlord concerns for their members, who get another source of income.

Room to grow, slowly

Less than two years old, Calgary Aging in Place has 23 household members so far and wants to keep growing. There are a few snags, though, not the least of which is the size of sprawling Calgary.

The co-op had initially wanted to operate in four Calgary neighbourhoods, said board member Rodier. “We were hoping to hire workers from the communities [for] members from those communities.”

But they weren’t able to find service providers, or enough potential household members, to sustain working out of more than two regions of the city: the Crowchild Trail Corridor and MacLeod Trail South Corridor.

“We keep getting people who are interested but don’t live very close to the other members,” said Rodier, adding the co-op encourages people in that situation to get their neighbours interested, too, making a stronger case for expansion.

Nevertheless, Luhnau believes the idea will catch on, not only in Calgary but outside the city, too.

“As part of that [B.C. Co-operative Association] grant, we said that we would share our incorporation documents, bylaw information, business plan, and any other information with a person who wanted to start a co-op,” she said.

Gardener Moreton is considering adopting the model for Penticton, British Columbia, when she’s ready for a career change.

“I’ve always loved seniors and being around them, and probably get my most job satisfaction out of helping them and just enhancing their quality of life, allowing them to stay in their homes where they really want to be for as long as possible,” she said.

For her part Rodier, despite not using many of the co-ops services herself, is sticking with Calgary Aging in Place for the long haul because it’s still in the early stages.

“[My mom and I] are trying to support the group now with the hope that they will have more members and be able to provide more services as time goes on,” she said. “These things take so long to get organized. It’s years.”

*Story corrected Feb. 3 at 2:20 p.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health

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