One of the things that surprises Cheryl Ackimenko the most about the Community Supports program with GEF Seniors Housing is how often individuals call the team’s main phone line looking for assistance. She points out how every one of GEF Seniors Housing’s buildings has posters up in common areas giving information about the Community Supports program with all relevant contact information. Some individuals contact the Community Supports team even before they’re in a position of needing assistance.
“One gentleman, who recently called, moved in to his apartment a few days earlier and said he does not need any support now, but wanted to learn about services in the community should he need them in the future,” recalls Ackimenko. “He was pleasantly surprised the Community Support program was available and so accessible to him.”
Ackimenko’s previous career as an Outreach Worker, made her the perfect fit to oversee the Community Supports team while the team’s original manager, Shanika Donalds, completes her temporary leave. Ackimenko managed multiple buildings around GEF Seniors Housing for five years before moving to her position as the interim Community Supports Manager, where she oversees the team of Outreach Workers and the individual projects each is working on. The Community Supports team is made up of Nicole Smith, Madison Black and Marita Gronberg. “This team does an amazing job providing support, as they are all passionate about helping seniors increase their Quality of Life.” Though many of the referrals that come to the Community Supports team are straight from the individuals looking for help, there are still those which come from other members of the GEF Seniors Housing community.
“[The referral] may be a tenant who has a concern about their neighbor in the building and they want an outreach worker to offer information about the program to the neighbor,” explains Ackimenko. “It is great to see a sense of community being built through connections with neighbors.”
Much of the work the Community Supports does involve one-on-one consultations to identify the roots of the hardships the individuals are experiencing. Many seniors face issues around social isolation, which contain a range of debilitating mental and physical health detriments that can seriously affect a person’s quality of life. It’s during the one-on-one work that Ackimenko experiences people opening up about things.
“Recently, when assisting a woman who wanted help with decluttering her home and connecting to her community, she shared her story of how she came to GEF a few years ago,” says Ackimenko. “She was renting a house with a roommate but the relationship with the roommate deteriorated to the point where she had to move out quickly. She was very grateful that she was able to find housing within GEF Seniors Housing during this stressful time of her life. She moved in to her own apartment within GEF Seniors Housing and has felt safe every day since then. She is again happy that GEF Seniors Housing has a program to support her with her needs.”
Sharing experiences and personal stories isn’t uncommon for the Community Supports team. Part of the work of understanding what’s affecting a person’s quality of life stems from the person’s experiences. Ackimenko cherishes when people are able to open up to her and respects the amount of faith people are able to put into her and her team.
“As a Community Outreach worker, on the first visit, it is an opportunity to get to know the person and build trust,” says Ackimenko.” You learn a lot about the person and their unique needs as they share their past experiences with you and the challenges they are facing now. Often they are experiencing loneliness and isolation at this time in their life. The second visit is always welcomed, as a relationship begins to build. Helping seniors navigate their needs to increase their quality of life and reduce their social isolation is very rewarding.”
The expression “every day is different” is often overused. In the case of Marita Gronberg, Community Supports Outreach Worker with GEF Seniors Housing, the expression takes on a whole new level of meaning. She explains that her role in the Community Supports team sees her making those one-on-one connections with people living in GEF Seniors Housing buildings and building the kinds of relationships where she’s able to identify what’s missing in a person’s life and how her area of expertise can help them.
“Some days I spend making phone calls and referrals, other days I am out visiting people in their homes within the GEF Seniors Housing community,” says Gronberg. “There are a variety of concerns residents bring forward during conversation, anywhere from the topics of experiencing abuse to the need of support for housecleaning.”
The foundation of trust Gronberg builds with the people she works one-on-one with is crucial to ensuring they receive the supports they need. She identifies social isolation as being one of the most pervasive issues that many seniors face. Research has shown that social isolation’s damaging effects extend far past simply having no one to talk to. The mental and physical health detriments seniors experience when isolated can seriously affect their quality of life and include an increased risk of cognitive decline, dementia, increased blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.
“This isolation makes it difficult for seniors to be aware of the resources available to them that can improve their quality of life and independence. Community Supports breaks through the wall of isolation, meeting people where they are at, and creating a support for someone they may not have had in a long time.”
The kinds of issues Gronberg has helped people work through include finding transportation solutions for people who can no longer drive, working on finance issues with people trying to live on a low-income, and even more serious mental health issues such as hoarding disorders and depression. She recounts a story about working with a woman living with depression and some of the challenges she helped her overcome.
“She no longer had interest in any activities, lost her appetite, found no feelings of happiness, felt she had no reason to live, and only wanted to sleep,” recalls Gronberg. “She reached out to Community Supports and was able to share everything she has been experiencing and feeling without any judgment in return. She said the biggest thing she needed was just to talk to someone, and know that she is not alone with these thoughts and feelings. Within another month of taking the medications from her doctor, she was back to feeling like her normal self. She was so happy to have had someone to listen to her during her darkest time.”
Gronberg knows how hard it can be for people to open up and ask for help. Seniors especially have this difficulty because they often don’t know what’s available to them and how easy it is to access what are often free or low-cost services and solutions to many issues they face. Gronberg’s worked hard to earn a good reputation around GEF Seniors Housing and continues working with people one-on-one to ensure they’re living with a good quality of life.
“Each time someone allows me into their home and personal space, and opens up to me about their deep and personal experiences,” says Gronberg. “It is always a high honor and privilege.”
Janet was never one for napping. Shortly after moving into Canora Gardens in February, 2018, she decided to take a quick rest in the afternoon. She woke up a few hours later, realizing that this was the first long and deep nap she had taken in years.
“I told my daughter and she howled because she’s never seen me nap!” Janet says with a wide smile. “I remember waking up and thinking, ‘oh, this is what it’s like to relax.’”
Moving into Canora Gardens has changed a lot about Janet’s day-to-day life. Even in the short time she has lived in the GEF Seniors Housing building, she says she already feels more at home here than she has anywhere else in the past 20 years. Though it took some time to finally move in, Janet believes that being able to call Canora Gardens home was well worth the wait.
“I would have waited another two or three years if it meant I was living somewhere as great as this,” Janet says. “I applied even before the applications were technically open. I was approved in about four days.”
Janet saw photos from Canora Gardens before it experienced its 2012 fire and was immediately drawn to the building. She was living in another apartment building close to the city’s west-end, but wanted to be further west so she could live closer to her daughter. Janet remembers the first few interactions she had with GEF Seniors Housing staff
“You don’t get that kind of respect everywhere,” says Janet. “I felt immediately welcomed by everyone working here.”
Seeing the show suite at Canora Gardens impressed both Janet and her daughter. They were both immediately drawn to the counter space and cabinets in the kitchen. Living with celiac disease means Janet has to do a lot of her own cooking so having a spacious kitchen with full sized appliances was important.
In addition to the full kitchen, Janet and her daughter immediately noted how safe and secure Canora Gardens is. She immediately noted that all the locks in Canora Gardens are set with a fob and not with the typical key system in most older apartment buildings. She remembers back to her previous building where there were serious issues with break and enters.
“It got to the point where I was piling up chairs against my door,” explains Janet. “Now, I live with a sense of serenity. I’m actually able to sleep now because I feel so safe.”
Janet’s positive spirit is seeing her already looking to make connections within her community. She’s never been one to shy away from meeting new people and is even exploring the larger neighbourhood to help keep her busy. She’s even starting to look ahead, knowing that as she ages she won’t be able to live totally on her own. Janet laughs as she points out that she already has her next GEF Seniors Housing building picked out.
“I got to see Meadowlark Place and I told my daughter, this is where I want to live next when the time comes,” says Janet. “For now, I am completely happy here. It feels like I’ve been given a new lease on life.”
For his 65th birthday, Harry Johanson boarded a flight to Toronto. But that was far from his final destination. After stops in Chile and Argentina, he found himself on a Russian research ship, heading further southward. Fourteen days later, he set foot on Antarctica. He explains that he was lucky to land safely because the route the ship took was one of the most dangerous routes any ship could take on planet Earth.
“We took the Drake Passage through to Antarctica and had to race a storm that was coming up behind us,” Johanson says. “The next year, that same ship got trapped in the Antarctic ice and needed to be rescued by a Chinese cargo ship.”
Johanson is a self-taught photographer who first took up the hobby in the 1990s while working as a long-haul truck driver. He remembers being hired by the Canadian Fish and Wildlife service to travel into what is now Nunavut and met a wildlife photographer while he was up there. He was immediately fascinated by the craft and decided to take it up for himself. What transpired over the years is a passion for travel and capturing images of wildlife that has seen Johanson explore all seven continents. His trip to Antarctica saw him snap shots of penguins, seals, and many different species of birds.
“I don’t edit any of my photographs,” Johanson boasts, proudly displaying photographs of Red Pandas in China and sea turtles off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii. “I want to show my authentic photographs.”
His most recent trip was down to Yuma, Arizona, where he spotted humming birds. He set his camera to take shots at 1/4000th of a second and caught the bird in flight, making it appear as if floating in mid-air with its wings completely still. This is far from his most impressive photographs. His trips out to Kenya put him in close proximity with lions and water buffalo. On a trip to Tanzania, he visited Olduvai Gorge where the world’s oldest human fossils were discovered. And his trip to the Galapagos Islands gave him first-hand experience as to what Charles Darwin saw as he wrote On the Origin of Species. The photograph Johanson is most proud of, though, is one he captured while in India.
“I spotted a Jackal and I followed him along, snapping photos,” Johanson reminisces. “From a tall grass, a Bengal Tiger popped up its head. I followed it to a creek and captured some photos of it walking across the rock bed.”
Snapping photos of rare animals is Johanson’s biggest passion. With little more than only 2,500 Bengal Tigers left in the world, being able to see one in real life in the wild is a highlight to Johanson’s photography tenure. His adventures have also seen him snap photos of White Lions (though it was in a zoo in Germany), Kiwi birds, and a road runner (where he got close enough that the road runner’s head feathers stood on edge as a warning to Johanson not to get any closer). He tries to keep a safe distance from the wildlife he shoots but has suffered his fair share of injuries from his subjects. Once while shooting a goshawk, the bird it struck him in the face, leaving a severe cut near his eye. Johanson has also suffered injury from a great horned owl and a snowy owl.
Despite all he’s seen and experienced, Johanson’s drive to continue is far from waning down. He explains that he has yet to see Canada’s Maritime Provinces and wants to return to the Arctic Circle to capture photos of muskox and caribou. Knowing there is always something new to see and something new to learn, Johanson will continue travelling as far and wide as he can, taking in as much of this world as he possible can.
“Travel is the best learning tool a person can have,” says Johanson. “Everywhere I go, I meet the people and I learn so much about them. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that, as people, we are really all the same. We may have different cultures and customs, but we are all human beings who all come from the same place. There’s really no end to what you can learn.”
Around 30 years ago, Judy learned how to make dog figurines out of wool and wire hangers. She learned the craft from another woman who lived with her back when she called Strathcona Place home. Now living at Queen Alexandra Place lodge, she has become the teacher, showing the craft to her neighbour, Verna. The two ladies don’t make the dogs for just anyone, though. The pair makes the dogs for any of their neighbours who go to the hospital overnight and to the women fighting breast cancer and living at Compassion House.
“We just wanted these people to know that someone cares about them,” says Verna. “The dogs are a lot of fun to make and we get such nice letters from the people we give the dogs to. My grandchildren just love them too.”
The ladies have the craft down so tight, Verna can finish one dog every two days while the more experienced Judy can finish a dog over the course of a good hockey game. The process starts with the wire hanger bent in the shape the dog will take. Judy’s step-son bends the hangers for the ladies and drops off groups of them whenever the ladies are running low. The wool is then tied in a pom-pom style bow and tied off to hold its shape. The bows then line the wire hanger frame and are bundled together. The dogs’ ears are tied in the same pom-pom fashion, only with looser threads to mimic the bounce of floppy ears. Beaded eyes and a nose are then hot glued on to give the dog its face, and ultimately its personality.
Before Christmas, the ladies donated 24 dogs to Compassion House. Two months later, at the beginning of March, they donated another 22. This is in addition to the dogs given to their neighbours in the lodge and to their families.
“My granddaughter is an Assistant Manager over at Julio’s Barrio and she gave a dog to one of the servers she worked with and the server loved it so much she started to cry,” says Judy. “It’s amazing how attached people get to these little dogs.”
The ladies see the attachment to the dogs in many of the people they give them to. One gentleman from the lodge was given one before he went to the hospital, where he sadly later passed away. The man was so attached to the dog that his family put it in the casket with him. This kind of emotional attachment and positive influence is far from rare for people who receive the dogs.
“We don’t think about the cost while we’re making them,” says Verna. “All we think about is what it’s going to do for people.”
Even the ladies grow attached to some of their dogs. The pair has started naming many of them before they’re given out. One with orange and blue ribbons that was given to Recreation Coordinator Pavi Lally was named Oscar, after Pavi’s favourite player on the Edmonton Oilers Oscar Klefbom. Another shaggy brown one that Judy has grown particularly attached to is named Rags.
“I almost lost Rags on the way down here,” Judy says with a laugh. “One of the ladies saw Rags while I was coming down to the dining room. I’m saving Rags for my Granddaughter. The wire frame and bead eyes aren’t the best for small children.”
The ladies have no plans on slowing down any time soon. How the gesture of making and giving one of these dogs to someone facing a hard time positively influences a person’s quality of life is very evident to Judy and Verna. Some of the future dog projects they have in mind are also a little ambitious.
“We were given this one set of wool, and it is just massive,” Judy says, holding out her arms expressing the size of the ball of wool. “We were thinking of using it to make a mom, and dad, and a whole litter of puppies. Make a little family for others to enjoy.”
After five years of being with the on-call maintenance team, Matt Johnson knows how to spot the week’s theme, or sometimes even the day’s theme, for the on-call services at GEF Seniors Housing’s forty buildings throughout the city. He notes that after three or four similar calls, he can easily predict that many of the other calls for the week will follow a familiar pattern. He remembers one long night in particular where a few difficult calls flooded in.
“A fire line burst at Rosslyn Place and flooded down through the whole building,” remembers Johnson. “I was there for a few hours with the site managers and the fire department just trying to clean things up and get things back in good working order. I got home and about thirty minutes I got another call that Ansgar Villa had started flooding.”
GEF Seniors Housing’s on-call maintenance team sees the on-staff trades taking turns having their cell phones and pagers on hand in case of any emergency at the buildings. The 16 members of the team take weekly rotations where they’re responsible for the after-hours, holidays, and weekends when GEF Seniors Housing’s offices aren’t open. Maintenance Manager Tony Lovell started off with GEF Seniors Housing as an on-call tech around 26 years ago and remembers a very different working environment.
“There was only two of us on-call at that time, so it was basically one week on, one week off,” explains Lovell. “There were only around 20 buildings that GEF Seniors Housing managed, so it wasn’t like there were two of us looking after all forty buildings we have now. Still, it was fairly hectic and we had to learn how to prioritize projects pretty quick.”
Today, there are always two maintenance techs assigned to on-call. Lovell, along with Maintenance Administrator Doreen Kinney, start the year by assigning the on-call schedules, beginning first with prioritizing who’s looking after the Holiday Season. Johnson remembers this past holiday season being particularly hectic for the on-call staff because of the sudden cold snap that hit in December.
“I wasn’t assigned to on-call but I checked in and found a few places where I could lend a hand,” says Johnson. “The whole crew is really good for working together on both helping out when a lot of calls come in and even for the initial scheduling.”
Lovell points out that once the schedule is complete, he and Kinney post it up in the maintenance department at Central Services. It doesn’t take long for the team to get together and start moving around days, ensuring that they continue to have a good work-life balance.
“The schedule looks different pretty-well every day,” Lovell says with a laugh. “The crew is really good about working together on the scheduling, switching out dates for whatever might come up.”
The techs assigned to on-call work on any issue that might come up, even though they may have a specified trade. Johnson and Lovell are both plumbers by trade but have experience working on everything from the key system to electrical tasks and heating issues.
“I’ve always been really handy and I like having my fingers in a lot of different practices, so working on things outside of my trade is nothing new for me,” says Johnson. “Working on all kinds of different building issues still teaches me a lot. Everyone on the on-call team is prepared for pretty much anything.”
The way the actual call system works hasn’t changed much since Lovell first joined the team. When an emergency occurs, the tenant at the building calls GEF Seniors Housing’s answering service provider requesting assistance. The answering service provider system then sends a message to the GEF Seniors Housing staff tech’s pager (yes, pager) with contact information to the person who made the assistance call. Lovell points out that using pagers isn’t a result of not updating the technology within GEF Seniors Housing. It’s actually because of a lack of a more reliable option.
“A lot of our techs live outside of the city and a lot of the times they work in basement mechanical rooms, and all of this affects cell phone signals,” Lovell explains. “Pager signals are still quite a bit stronger than cell phone signals. This is why they’re still used by doctors. Surgeons and techs are the last professions still using pagers.”
For Johnson, working his week as the designated on-call always has its array of challenges. He stays motivated by remembering the people he serves and what his role is in making sure they’re living with a good quality of life.
“The people I work with are always very grateful when you get their heat working in the winter time,” says Johnson. “I’d be lying if I said that the decent extra bit on my paycheque isn’t a good reward for being on call. But I really do enjoy the people part of the job. I get to improve some part of a person’s life. And that’s what I do every time I go into a building. I look for ways to improve things and make things better for the people.”
An apron hangs in Michael’s kitchen. Stitched into it is a patch that says, “Michael is not only a great chef, he is a culinary artist!” Though he admits he’ll never wear it, Michael hangs the apron with pride. It was a gift from one of his neighbours at Strathcona Place. Sharing his culinary skills is something Michael takes a lot of delight in.
“Right from a young age, my siblings and I were taught to cook, clean, all for ourselves,” says Michael. “We were taught to be self-reliant with the things we had and that sense of self-reliance has certainly helped me be able to call this place home.”
Michael knows that a space like his in a Manhattan rental market would easily cost around $2,000 a month. Thankfully, Michael lives in Edmonton and in a GEF Seniors Housing apartment where the rent is geared to his income. For most people, 325 square-feet is not a lot of space. For Michael, it’s a perfect fit.
Before moving to Strathcona Place, Michael owned a house in Edmonton’s west-end. He admits it took him around six months to settle into his new apartment but now can’t imagine living anywhere else. The smaller square-footage wasn’t a deterrent at all. In fact, it was almost a selling point for him.
“I was able to see the space empty before I moved in,” Michael explains. “I took only the things I wanted from my house. I then measured out the space I had to work with and found furniture pieces that worked within the space.”
Growing up in southern Alberta coal towns, Michael remembers his family home only being around 600 square-feet. He looks at average house sizes now and can’t believe that people need so much space. The Globe and Mail reported that the average house size in Canada has ballooned to close to 2,000 square-feet (though still smaller than the average house size in the US at 2,600 square-feet).
“I have a friend who lives in a 3,000 square-feet house,” Michael says. “Every room is just full of stuff. There’s a craft room, a man cave, and it’s still not enough room for him and his wife. In Japan, an apartment the size of mine would be big enough for a whole family. What I’ve learned is the more space you have, the more money it costs.”
Michael acknowledges that many people he knows have difficulties parting with material goods and keepsakes. He notes that this could be partly because of either living through the Great Depression or having parents who did, so the need to hold onto things increases with that frame of reference. He also notes, though, that growing up he didn’t have many of the modern conveniences that so many take for granted today.
“The house I grew up in didn’t have TV or even electricity,” Michael says. “If we wanted entertainment, we had to go outside.”
The idea of leaving your space to connect with the community is something Michael still lives by. He notes that many of the people he knows in Strathcona Place get together regularly for games and for potlucks (where he shares some of his well-executed home-cooked delights) and he spends plenty of time walking in the neighbourhood. He explains that the conveniences in the community such as banks, grocery stores, and clinics are so easy to walk to, he doesn’t even own a car anymore.
“Everything you could need is right here, even the bus routes along here are some of the best in the city,” says Michael. “A monthly pass for the bus is $15. You can’t drive anywhere for that cheap.”
Not the only tenant of Strathcona Place to embrace the paired down lifestyle, many of Michael’s neighbours live in the same square footage as he does without sacrificing any passions. He points out one neighbour utilizes modular fold out tables to create a crafting space. Even the University of Alberta students who also call Strathcona Place home live in the smaller bachelor units and continue to be a welcome addition to the community inside the building.
After the six months it took him to adjust to his new living environment, he feels fully connected and comfortable where he is. He understands that the transition is stressful for many to embark on but also points out that it’s completely worth it by the end of the process.
“The staff here are amazing and do such great work to keep the building safe and so no one ever has to look over their shoulders,” says Michael. “It really is like a small town. I’m never left wanting. This is the perfect space for me and I have no plans to ever leave.”
Colleen Simpson started working with GEF Seniors Housing in 1994 and has worked at multiple sites all throughout the organization before landing at Cathedral Close, where she works as an Assistant Manager. One constant that she has noticed, right from her first position at the original McQueen Place, is that hoarding behaviour is prevalent in many seniors. While working at Central Services, former Director of Operations Greg Dewling suggested that Simpson join a group chaired by Sage Seniors Association looking at the problem of hoarding style behaviour.
In 2012, Simpson began working with the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition, a group made up of representatives from non-profit community organizations and people with lived hoarding behaviour experiences. The group’s mission includes looking more into hoarding behaviour, recognizing gaps in services and funding, identifying supports for clients, pinpointing the roles of community partners, and researching the statistics for community presentations. As Simpson explains, much of the information needed to properly address hoarding behaviours is severely lacking.
“Much of the data we rely upon for our research is actual US based because the Canadian research simply doesn’t exist,” says Simpson. “Hoarding behaviour as a condition was only recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. Much of the research and recognition of this as a disorder is new. Even the research in the US only started about 20 years ago.”
A few facts that are known about hoarding disorder are that older adults are three times more likely to experience the behaviour than younger adults, men are more likely to exhibit the symptoms where women are more likely to seek out help, and that hoarding tendencies begin between ages 11 and 15. As part of working with other agencies to gather data through surveys of reported cases, the group conducted a survey in 2016 that looked at 257 individual cases. The stats have been compiled into presentations for other organizations to help increase the awareness and knowledge of the issue. Though Simpson is proud of the work done in the surveys and being gathered by the Coalition, she also knows where the research falls short.
“The survey only covers reported cases of hoarding behaviour where individuals sought out help and accessed services,” says Simpson. “That leaves enormous gaps in unreported cases and cases where individuals didn’t seek help.”
Though there are other groups like the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition across Canada, Simpson points out that they are not consistent in other cities. She stresses that it’s going to be through the work of community focused groups that will spur more interest and better education around what constitutes hoarding disorders. Simpson explains that even some of her own assumptions from before her work with the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition has led her to inaccurate assumptions.
“I’ve made the call to support services about a hoarding issue and once the workers arrive, they tell me that’s it’s not a hoarding situation,” says Simpson. “Hoarding disorder is so much more than just accumulating things. It’s a whole range of behaviours that when combined, build to dangerous situations.”
Dangers with hoarding situations in the home include blocking electrical outlets and heating vents which can lead to fire, piles of possessions toppling over causing injury, and blocking essential spaces like kitchens and washrooms. For seniors, the issue becomes more hazardous as many live with mobility restrictions and require mobility aids to get around their apartments. There are support services available such as Sage Seniors Association’s This Full House program, which sees outreach workers assisting seniors work through hoarding issues and maintain healthier living environments, but often times the call for an intervention comes much later than it should.
The Edmonton Hoarding Coalition’s goals include setting up a directory of services for people living with hoarding behaviours, even beyond decluttering and waste management. Simpson points out home trades such as plumbers and electricians often won’t work in homes where hoarding is occurring. Finding the services that can help a person while living in a hoarding situation will be key to ensuring they can continue living with a good quality of life.
For Simpson, some of the most important impacts that the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition has had for her are working to change her own attitudes and assumptions and enlightening her as to what to look for when she suspects someone is living with a hoarding disorder. Most important, though, is ensuring she remembers that who she is talking with is a human being.
“We don’t identify people as hoarders, people are not the condition that they are living with,” says Simpson. “Our seniors living with hoarding disorder, or any other condition that may need services and supports, deserve to live with a good quality of life. Without the right kind of data leading us in the best direction, it can be hard to know what are the best steps to take. We’re hoping that the work with the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition will establish that data set needed to increase awareness and work towards building a community that has a better understanding of how to help people living with hoarding disorder.”
Before Lisa Kutzner joined the GEF Seniors Housing team, she worked in visual presentation with multiple retail outlets including the Edmonton Eaton’s store. It was arranging furniture in those spaces that sparked her interest in completing her Residential Interiors certification with the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension. And it was during her studies that she realized her passion for interior spaces for seniors.
“I wrote a marketing plan for aging in place during my studies and it opened a lot of interest for me in seniors housing,” says Kutzner. “The demand for seniors spaces was obvious. Keeping up with current design trends and the products on the market along with evaluating products and finishes that feel residential to our seniors yet are sustainable in commercial spaces brings new challenges every day.”
Kutzner’s approach to smaller spaces for seniors sees a mix of functional thought and aesthetic charm, both aspects to a good quality of life. She notes that, when she provides any kind of design assistance with GEF Seniors Housing, she tries to place herself in the position of a senior approaching the space.
“We try to think about how the space is going to be used, how many people are going to be in the space, what is best for circulation, so that it functions well for everyone concerned.”
A running philosophy for Kutzner as she looks at smaller individual spaces is that less is more. She points out that clear and concise spaces, coupled with good lighting and single textures, can trick the eye into making the space seem much bigger. She points out that cleaner and tidier spaces helps the eye to rest, which has been reported to reduce overall stress in a person. To help with developing clean and clear spaces, Kutzner looks to a growing trend popularly found in tiny homes.
Modular furniture (such as nesting side tables, dining tables with a fold down leaf, or storage beds) can function to both serve a purpose when it’s needed but also be easily stored when it’s not. The trend towards using modular furniture pieces is only increasing as population density issues become more pertinent in growing cities.
“People in Europe have been living in smaller spaces like this for years,” says Kutzner. “And part of that becoming the norm has been the use of modular furniture pieces.”
Kutzner acknowledges that trends in housing are going to continue moving towards smaller and simpler spaces. By living in smaller spaces, people reduce the amount of energy they use on a daily basis, resulting in both financial savings for the individual and an overall reduction in environmental impact. Part of living in a smaller space also means having fewer furniture pieces overall, which makes investing in better quality all the more feasible.
“I have always lived in smaller spaces and I invest in classic pieces that are of a well-made,” says Kutzner. “Because you don’t have so many spaces to fill, you can invest in better quality furniture pieces and have those pieces last a very long time. It’s those pieces that tend to never go out of style.”
Some design trends in small spaces don’t work for seniors living, such as floating shelves high above to increase storage. The added cleaning of the surfaces coupled with the risk of falling objects aren’t ideal for seniors living. What seniors can learn from the idea around higher shelving is thinking out the space better and seeing possibilities where they wouldn’t otherwise be. This can mean placing lighting higher up to leave storage space more accessible below. Planning spaces out better also means designating space for the tasks and activities that add to a person’s quality of life.
“If you have a smaller kitchen and you love baking, create an area on the counter and organize a section of the cabinetry specifically designated for baking,” says Kutzner. “Same goes for any other hobby or activity. Make sure you organize the space for it. It’s adding to a practice of making sure everything has a place. It adds to the space’s function, helps keep it livable, and contributes to a better flow when activities are easy.”
It’s often said that smaller space colours should be kept white or light. Kutzner explains that the space still needs to be personalized and to reflect the individual’s personality. This can be achieved through splashes of colour on accent walls or with accent pieces. Lighting remains especially important when it comes to making an aesthetically pleasing small space.
“With Canora Gardens, we were lucky that the building was built with such large windows before we had to renovate it,” says Kutzner. “We also keep in mind the need for privacy and black-out for sleeping, so we make sure to provide window treatments that work in the space.”
For Kutzner, the pride of working on so many new capital and renovation building projects comes when she gets to contribute a fingerprint on the project. With Sakaw Terrace, she’s part of the GEF Seniors Housing team that is working closely with Rockliff Pierzchajlo Kroman Architects Ltd. on the products and finishes within the suites, lodge rooms, and common areas, ensuring the most senior friendly environments that will appeal to residents and the staff.
“Raymond [Swonek] always has great ideas and feedback of what the suites and lodge rooms need to look like and how they should function if it is a brand new building,” says Kutzner. “We communicate this as a team and work from start to finish on these spaces. Being very engaged on the projects for me are very proud moments and are extremely rewarding.”
One of the most challenging clients Lynn Fraser ever had was her own mother-in-law. Fraser is a professional organizer and member of the Professional Organizers in Canada, all of whom have different specialties and areas of expertise. It was working with her mother-in-law that made her realize how important her work is for seniors.
“My mother-in-law was 94 years old and still living in her own apartment,” says Fraser. “When we finally convinced her to move into something more appropriate for her, we had a small window of time to get her ready to transition from a two-bedroom apartment to a 300 square foot lodge room.”
Fraser’s mother-in-law moved to Queen Alexandra Place three months after she was placed on the waiting list. Like many of the other seniors she has worked with in her practice, Fraser noticed that her mother-in-law kept a lot of things from over the years. She attributes this partially to the generation her mother-in-law was a part of, one who lived through the Great Depression, and also as a sign that the next, and often scary, part of life is coming up quick.
“For my mother-in-law, moving into a lodge was putting one foot in the grave,” says Fraser. “I remember that first day she was living in Queen Alexandra Place, I walked with her around the neighbourhood and it took a lot of convincing to really demonstrate that this wasn’t the end for her. In fact, it was opening a lot of possibilities.”
Decluttering as a general practice for anyone is reported to have a multitude of benefits ranging from clearer thinking, more time and improved energy to alleviating anxiety. For seniors in particular, Fraser points out that the benefits revolve around living more in the moment. She explains that older adults who hold on to objects tend to either attribute memories to them or plan to give them to family members eventually.
“They’re either living in the past or in the future and they’re missing being fully present now,” says Fraser. “Once the decluttering process begins, there’s a huge shift in people’s happiness. They can see more possibilities, it allows for more dreaming, and for seniors especially it’s the understanding that family and friends can come to visit and have a place to sit and eat. Especially as they’re looking to move into a smaller space, alleviating the pressure of where they will put all of their stuff suddenly opens up possibilities of all the things they can do when their grandchildren visit.”
Beginning the process of decluttering can be the most daunting part of the whole process. Fraser suggests that as soon as someone is on the list for a seniors lodge or apartment, the downsizing needs to begin right away. By beginning the process sooner, it becomes a set of smaller decluttering goals, as opposed to one large one that needs immediate and drastic action. Keeping up the conversation about all the benefits to their new space to keep it top of mind is important throughout the process. Fraser was able to practice some of the more practical tactics in downsizing with her mother-in-law.
“My mother-in-law was an artist, so she had this incredible collection of paintings,” Fraser recollects. “As a family, we worked with her to pick out her favourites and determined where each painting would go once she moved.”
Paring down collections is an important step in the downsizing process and Fraser stresses that it’s of the utmost importance that the person downsizing be the one making the decisions on what stays and what goes, if she is cognitively able to. Even with her mother-in-law’s clothes, Fraser was able to lean on her mother-in-law’s favourite colours (pink and purple) as a means of reducing the amount of clothing she had. Fraser explains that it’s being able to give options within reason that makes for a successful downsizing.
“The person downsizing has to be the one who chooses,” says Fraser. “You need to be respectful and work as a team. Keep reminding them of all they have to look forward to and talk about the things they love to do and how decluttering will help them be able to do those things. For my mother-in-law, I was able to talk about how many interesting people she would have to draw again. That really resonated with her and helped her along.”
Fraser recommends at times even using games to help with the decluttering process. One game she utilizes is identifying your clutter hot spot in the space and challenging the person to beat the clock in sorting and purging the pile. Another effective game can be found on the Minimalists website called the 30-Day Minimalism Game where a person gets rid of one thing on day one, two things on day two, three things on day three, and so on. Fraser also cites the Marie Kondo book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as an effective text with practical and motivating advice. The most practical piece of advice in the text comes from a single question: “Does this bring me joy?”
For Fraser, there are actually eleven effective questions when deciding on what to do with an item:
- Does this bring me joy?
- Do I really need this?
- Do I need this many?
- Does it work?
- Am I using it?
- Will I ever use it or go back to it?
- Do I really care about it?
- Where am I keeping it?
- Can I quickly find it when I need it? (change to ‘find it quickly’)
- Is it worth storing or filing?
- Who am I keeping it for?
The last piece of advice that Fraser would give anyone looking to downsize or declutter is to envision the space that they want. How do they want it to look? How do they want it to feel? By creating that clear idea of what they want this space to be, it will continue helping that drive to continue the decluttering process.
“Staying focused is the hardest part of an already difficult process,” says Fraser. “Having another person there can both offer a lot of support and add some accountability. If they can stick with that vision, all the amazing benefits, the self-esteem, the happiness, the possibilities, all will fall into place no matter the size of space you’re living in.”