Aging in place is a concept that carries a host of positive connotations. It’s typically envisioned in tandem with a package of support services and accessibility aids to offset health, mobility and sensory challenges, enabling seniors to live safely and contentedly in familiar surroundings. This can likewise have positive spinoffs for their neighbours and the wider community.
“I do prescribe to the belief that behaviour, in general, improves when more than one generation is present,” reflects Constable Tom McKay of the Peel Regional Police, one of Canada’s foremost experts on crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED). “Seniors are potentially very important in terms of presenting eyes on the street in residential neighbourhoods.”
A generational mix creates what he terms a “natural supervision/responsibility dynamic” which makes would-be disruptive forces less inclined to act out. Seniors also tend to be present at times of day when it might be assumed easier for antisocial conduct to go unnoticed. Whether looking out their windows, sitting outdoors or congregated in shopping mall food courts, McKay characterizes them as guardians of public space and commonly accessible private spaces, who may also be consciously adept at surveillance.
Yet, sadly, property managers often see a reality far removed from this best-case scenario. As with other philosophies of community care, aging in place seems best suited for those who have ample financial resources and helpful family and/or friends nearby. For seniors on their own with modest fixed incomes, aging in place may simply be the only option, while landlords, condominium boards, property managers and superintendents can be involuntarily cast in the role of caregivers.
“We’re finding there is an increasing rate of incidents that relate to aging tenants becoming ill in their suites and not having a network to look after them or even to discover them,” says Randy Daiter, vice president, residential properties, with M&R Property Management. “Whenever we can, we promptly reach out to emergency contacts, but often find that those contacts are unavailable, out of town or outdated, or the resident just didn’t have any to begin with.”
An aging population in a country where it’s not uncommon for parents and their adult children to live hundreds or thousands of miles apart fuels the trend. In other cases, lone elderly residents originally moved into their apartments with a spouse and, as widows or widowers, are now dealing with grief and unaccustomed solitude along with physical decline.
“We’re seeing a lot of older people unlocking the equity in their homes. They decide to move into rental housing and that becomes the plan, long-term, until some other situation arises,” Daiter notes.
Legal compliance complexities
Those situations are rarely straightforward for property owners/managers juggling legal obligations to protect privacy, accommodate disabilities and ensure the health and safety of all building residents. Even intended helpful intervention like asking a social agency to visit and assess an ailing resident could have consequences for disclosing personal information. Sometimes landlords must take harsher steps to evict a tenant before social agencies will get involved — a move unlikely to win accolades from the wider public.
The demographic shift is perhaps even more apparent in the condominium sector, creating new management considerations and priorities. From a life-safety perspective, for example, building evacuations will be more complicated and time-consuming if a larger share of residents have mobility challenges and would need assistance to negotiate stairs or exit the building.
As a practicality, children hiring personal support workers for their elderly parents are advised to ask about fire safety and evacuation training among other qualifications, but property owners/managers bear the responsibility to comply with Ontario’s Fire Code. It mandates at least one annual fire drill in residential buildings, and that a list of all occupants who would require assistance to evacuate be kept with the fire safety plan that firefighters consult when they arrive on-site.
“The list is supposed to be updated as needed, which means if someone comes into the building on crutches, the list needs to be updated that day,” reiterates Kevin Boudewyn, principal of Boudewyn Training & Consulting and a firefighter with Toronto Fire Services. “Does that actually happen? Not often enough.”
Other non-compulsory documentation is also recommended, both for due diligence and as a good management practice for assisting residents in emergency situations.
“In the tenant screening process or as part of the condo rules, it’s helpful if there is a requirement on the resident to provide detailed contact information for emergency contacts, including powers of attorney and family members,” advises Joe Hoffer, a partner and specialist in residential tenancy and municipal law with Cohen Highley LLP. “There should also be a consent to release of personal information in the event that the Board or landlord reasonably determines that the resident may need assistance from a social service agency or a health care provider. This avoids liability for breach of privacy.”
Nevertheless, Daiter reminds emergency contacts that the Residential Tenancies Act remains the guiding authority. “Often we will get calls from concerned friends or family who want us to go into a unit and check on one of our tenants, but we can’t just do that,” he says.
Sensitive management required
Human rights legislation broadly mandates accommodation of disabilities, but details of enforcement vary depending on the specifics of each case. Concerns about the health and safety of other residents can supersede individual rights. Indeed, the occupier’s duty of care would make landlords or condo boards liable if they failed to address a foreseeable safety hazard.
Seniors’ reduced mobility, vision and/or hearing impairments can trigger requirements to accommodate, which will likely also come with capital costs. Meanwhile, issues related to residents with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia call for a high degree of sensitivity as managers strive to be sympathetic and respectful while fulfilling responsibilities to the larger occupancy.
Hoffer cites examples of dementia sufferers verbally abusing and physically threatening their neighbours, throwing items off their balconies or simply getting to a stage where it’s risky to be unsupervised. Notably, landlords and condo boards also have a duty of care to guard against residents with dementia causing harm to themselves.
“Under the Human Rights Code, the primary duty of the landlord is to ensure the tenant is able to reside in the rental unit and to take steps to make such residency accessible. That might mean installing automatic door openers if a tenant has a mobility issue,” he says. “But let’s say the issue is that a resident keeps causing fires by careless smoking or cooking. Then, because human health and safety is in question, steps must be taken to terminate the tenancy.”
Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act and Condominium Act afford the opportunity for rental housing owners to appeal to the Landlord and Tenant Board or for condo boards to argue their case before a Superior Court Justice. Condo boards that secure a removal order would also be able to recover costs through proceeds from the sale of the unit. Still, Hoffer warns it is a long and often disheartening process.
“Each case turns on its own facts so the strategies for dealing with standard of care and accommodation of the person creating the risk will differ,” he explains. “If proper standards are taken to accommodate the individual, but the individual refuses or is incapable of mitigating the safety risk to others, then the scale tips in favour of the housing provider and termination/eviction will be granted.”
Ultimately, eviction or termination is an outcome that no one likes to see. It’s not uncommon for landlords to make extra efforts to help — Hoffer recounts how one of his clients helped a tenant find a new wheelchair-accessible apartment and paid for her moving expenses; Daiter tells of recently arranging for someone to feed an elderly tenant’s cats while she was in the hospital — that aren’t part of the day-to-day business of property management.
“Sometimes, we almost become the de facto social worker. We do make a valiant effort to assist tenants who find themselves with no one to turn to, but we need to tread carefully as this is not our area of expertise,” Daiter says. “It would be great if there were more social support resources that could be easily tapped into when the need arises. From what we’re seeing, a lack of support networks is one of the worst parts of aging.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.