Elaine Ginter was over the moon when she was finally reunited her dog, Pepper. Pepper, a Bichon cross, was with Elaine for five years before they were separated. After living without Pepper for over a year at Porta Place, Elaine couldn’t be happier that GEF implemented a pet policy. Pepper is the very first furry resident of GEF Seniors Housing, and is fitting in quite well!
The new pet policy, which was rolled out in January 2020, went through months and months of work to develop, to ensure that each pet that is brought into one of our communities fits perfectly into our family. There are certain criteria that a pet has to meet, but the overall goal is to enhance the quality of life of our seniors.
Pepper moved in with Elaine’s daughter while she was getting settled at Porta Place. It was hard for her, as Pepper is like the son she never had. Elaine could go over and visit Pepper, but it was never the same. After continuously asking about the pet policy, Elaine was truly on cloud nine when she was told Pepper was able to move in with her. “I felt like my life had a purpose again. It meant the world to me!”
Having Pepper back in her life full time means Elaine is getting out of the house more. She needs to take him out to do his business, and they go for walks and car rides. Pepper gives Elaine a reason to stay motivated and get active!
“There were a few neighbours that were hesitant with this new policy and having a dog live in their building, but when they got to know Pepper and what a sweet dog he is, everyone was on board,” said Elaine. “When we get off the elevator, everyone says ‘Hi Pepper’ and gives him some love.”
It even took Pepper some time to adjust to his new living situation. “At my daughter’s house, he was so used to being let out the back or front door. Now we have to go in an elevator to go outside. He used to be scared of the elevator, but has now since gotten used to it. Whenever we get to our floor, he knows exactly which door to go to – which door is home!”
“I really do love it here at GEF! My neighbours, the staff – they are all so wonderful! Everyone is doing an amazing job, and I have settled in quite nicely,” said Elaine. “But it really has made my experience even better, having my Pepper here with me! I wouldn’t change it for the world!”
Sakaw Terrace as an idea was first conceived by Raymond Swonek when the City of Edmonton offered GEF Seniors Housing a surplus school site in the Mill Woods area. After seeing the plot of land being offered for a new affordable seniors housing development, he immediately pictured a building unlike anything GEF had ever attempted before.
“Mill Woods was really lacking affordable seniors housing,” says Swonek. “There was a huge need for lodge rooms and apartments catered to seniors with a low- to moderate-income. With there being such a huge need in this neighbourhood, I knew I had to go big – bigger than anything we had ever built before.”
Ambitions ran high for Sakaw Terrace. As the project development team began fleshing out the details that would make up this new seniors complex, Swonek started seeing something even better than he initially imagined. The designers and architects made space for 70 lodge rooms and 88 apartments, two outdoor courtyards, a communal greenhouse, a theatre room, a salon, and underground and above ground parking. Swonek explains that deciding what to include in this new building wasn’t a decision solely made by any one group.
“For any new building project, we always go out to the community and make sure they’re involved with as much of the process as they want to be,” says Swonek. “The community talked a lot about how much they like their green space, so between the courtyards and the greenhouse, we made sure to include as much green space as we possibly could.”
GEF began appearing at farmer’s markets and other community events to help keep up the momentum for Sakaw Terrace, only to be met by lines of people hoping to get on the waiting list early. With excitement running high in the Mill Woods community for Sakaw Terrace, the project team knew it needed to deliver something special and started looking to its environmental impact assessments for more inspiration.
“We decided to own more of the environmental stewardship around a project like [Sakaw Terrace],” Swonek says. “It’s important that what we build is sustainable and that we reduce our carbon footprint without compromising on our principle to provide great housing options for seniors.”
The team looked at sustainability in two ways, with the first being environmental. Sakaw Terrace was built with a combined heat and power unity (CHP), which better uses natural gas utilities by using the power and hear generated more efficiently. Estimates show that the CHP will reduce carbon gas emissions by 530 tons a year.
The other side of Sakaw Terrace’s sustainability is the financial side, which is helped by the CHP offering a savings of around $80,000 that GEF can reallocate to operations and services for seniors. But Swonek explains that they wanted to take financial sustainability a step further with a housing model he typically only sees in Europe.
“Sakaw Terrace is the first building in Alberta to offer a mixed-income model for housing in Western Canada,” Swonek says. “Thirty per cent of the suites in Sakaw Terrace are going to be offered to any senior, regardless of income, at a market value. We can then use the profits from the market value suites to keep funding the operations at Sakaw Terrace, making it a completely self-sustaining building.”
Though the financial side of sustainability is appealing to GEF Seniors Housing (especially being a not-for-profit), Swonek’s more proud of the communal aspects of these innovations.
“What our efforts amount to is making Sakaw Terrace more accessible to the 20,000 seniors currently living in the Mill Woods area,” Swonek says. “As people age, they want to stay in their communities. They want to be close to their families, friends, and the services they’re comfortable with. At the end of the day, the people have to come first. This is going to be someone’s home, and that needs to stay front of mind before anything else.”
On the afternoon of July 31, 2012, GEF Seniors Housing faced one of its worst building fires in over 50 years it has been an organization. The Canora Gardens building’s second floor caught fire after a new tenant moving in put a cardboard box on a hot stove element. One tenant lost their life in the fire due to smoke inhalation. GEF Seniors Housing’s Director of Facility Management Doug Kitlar explains that getting the call about a building fire is always unpredictable.
“It’s policy that whoever on the team is closest to the building when the fire call comes in has to go directly to the site to begin assessing the situation,” Kitlar explains. “Ed Campion, one of our project managers, made it to the site before I did. The whole drive over, I was looking over the horizon of buildings and I could see the black smoke billowing out and all I could think was that we were in trouble.”
The suite where the fire started and the suites next to it had extensive fire damage and the smoke damage all along the second floor was clearly visible. Kitlar says that while working with the adjusters, there was ample concern for the water damage to the floors below the fire and more smoke damage in the walls above the fire. Canora Gardens’ original construction had plenty of fire protection between the suites, but no smoke protection (as is the standard for modern buildings). Kitlar knew that the smoke damage went far beyond what they could see on the second floor.
“We opened up a couple of walls and we could clearly see the extent of the smoke damage,” says Kitlar. “It was a tragic situation for the whole building and the people living in it. The building was going to need a lot of work for the renovations but I knew with the right kind of renovation plan, we could turn this into an opportunity for something extremely positive.”
GEF Seniors Housing first worked to relocate the tenants from all 98 suites to other sites before beginning what started out as a $6 million renovation project. Plans were put into place to improve the fire and smoke protection, redesign the suites to better suit the needs of seniors, and even install a new sprinkler system. More challenges arose with the building project, including discovering a large amount of asbestos where parts of the sprinkler system would need to be installed and issues with the building envelope that caused major leaks including through the windows. The project quickly ballooned to $12 million.
“We were lucky to have a lot of support from the Government of Alberta throughout the whole project,” says Kitlar. “They supported a full redesign from the beginning. They knew this redesign would add another 40 years of life in this building and that was important for everyone involved.”
The Canora Gardens project has taken more than five years to complete with an opening date slated for January 2018. Kitlar points out that some rebuilds in the past have taken less time, but the Canora Gardens projects presented a few unique challenges (like the asbestos issue and the building envelope issue), which pushed the team at GEF Seniors Housing to go deeper into the building and work more to breathe new life into it.
“Once Canora Gardens is done, it will be like a whole new building,” says GEF Seniors Housing CEO Raymond Swonek. “I’ve been really proud of the team who not only have been rebuilding Canora Gardens but modernizing it as well.”
Throughout the Canora Gardens rebuild site, signs of bringing the building out of its original 1977 construction date and into 2017’s higher standards to residential buildings is evident all over. The building will feature better lighting, new interior finishes, improved common area spaces, a sprinkler system, and new energy efficient mechanical systems. For Kitlar, he’s proud of the mechanical and structural upgrades to the building, but there’s one facet that he’s especially excited about.
“We redesigned each of the suites so they function better for seniors,” says Kitlar. “We moved a few walls, flipped some floor plans, and were able to make the suites more conducive to the unique facets of seniors living without losing any suites. I am especially proud that we were able to keep the seniors who will live in the building so front of mind during this whole process.”
Swonek echoes Kitlar’s excitement about the redesign of the suites. His frequent visits to the sites have shown him how far along the building has come and how well this building is going to function as an independent seniors living complex once it’s completed.
“I visit the build site often because I’m a very visual person and I like to see the process being made,” says Swonek. “Canora Gardens is going to be so much of a safer building for the seniors living in it and I know it’s going to set a standard for seniors building renovation projects happening all across Edmonton.”
This is a story that was originally published in the February 2017 edition of Edmonton Prime Times.
Shanika Donalds knows better than most the harsh impacts that social isolation can have on seniors. Her role with GEF Seniors Housing as Community Supports Manager was created to help address the issue of social isolation in the seniors living in GEF Seniors Housing homes. For her, there is no such thing as a typical day. From one-on-one consultations to large-scale presentations during building resident meetings, Donalds and the rest of the Community Supports team work to find the underlying causes in the individual cases of social isolation and how to best work through those issues.
“One of our main operations as Community Supports is to help address seniors isolation in connection with quality of life, which in short is assessing if a person’s environment fulfills their needs,” says Donalds. “When an individual loses a partner or friends, the number of meaningful interactions declines, and this can include interactions with essential services like doctors and dentists. What we want to do is help those who are feeling isolated make those connections they need and raise their quality of life.”
Donalds and GEF Seniors Housing are just one group that make up the Pan Edmonton Group Addressing Social Isolation in Seniors (PEGASIS), a collective of seven seniors serving agencies operating in Edmonton. The group is coordinated by the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council (ESCC), which facilitates collaboration among seniors-serving organizations across Edmonton to address seniors’ sector issues in the city. Other organizations involved with PEGASIS include the Edmonton Southside Primary Care Network, Sage Seniors Association, the Westend Seniors Activity Centre, the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, and Drive Happiness.
Tim Henderson is the Community Connector and Project Manager for the PEGASIS project with the ESCC and his role is to connect all the seniors serving agencies and see where collaboration works best to help meet the needs of isolated seniors. He explains that this kind of collaboration is a lot of work and takes a lot of commitment and he’s here to help facilitate that collaboration through, “trying to bridge the challenges of government funding and accountability, different organizational cultures, external stakeholders, opportunities, and demands, and help to create a supportive environment for all seniors.”
Reducing social isolation on its surface seems like a straight-forward goal, Henderson points out. But once you start breaking down everything that encompasses social isolation, the solutions become much more complicated.
“Research has shown how destructive social isolation can be, and with the social and economic emphasis on individual success with which we live, the risks of, and ballooning costs related to, isolation are enormous as our demographics change and our population ages,” says Henderson. “Aging is something that we are all doing, and ensuring that we get to age well is a collective endeavour. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than working with a group of people to create a population shift in thinking and living.”
Part of the collaborative effort in PEGASIS is ensuring that all the seniors serving agencies in Edmonton know about each other and how their services can help each other and, ultimately, help the seniors who are in need. For example, if a community coordinator with Sage Seniors Association is working with an individual and discovers they can’t get around to see their friends or make it to medical appointments and its affecting their quality of life, that community coordinator with Sage can connect with Drive Happiness to make sure the senior has access to transportation.
“The challenge is honouring the individual agencies and projects while facilitating their learning and capacity to work together in new ways, rather than simply sharing information about what they are doing,” says Henderson.
Henderson also has a clear view as to what success looks like for PEGASIS. “There are two parts to success for PEGASIS,” he explains. “The first will be the real collaboration of the seven partners working together to map out and create a meaningful and workable plan to reduce social isolation now and in the future. The second part will be the expansion of the group collaboration so that we truly are the pan-Edmonton group addressing social isolation of seniors.”
Donalds explains that her team, with their specific mandate to serve seniors living in GEF Seniors Housing buildings, has its collection of challenges. Residents and tenants living in GEF Seniors Housing buildings pride themselves in living independently, so for many asking for help feels like submitting their independence.
“It’s actually the opposite where we’re working to ensure that the residents can keep living independently and have access to all the essential services they need while still having those meaningful connections,” says Donalds.
But for every bit of pushback that Donalds may see from the people she works with, she just as often sees seniors immediately acknowledging they need help and embracing what the Community Supports team has to offer.
“One of my proudest achievements is when I get a call from a senior who saw a poster or a brochure and they took the initiative to seek out help,” says Donalds. “Then, it spreads by word of mouth where seniors tell each other they should call us and that it’s a good thing and we really help.”
This story was originally printed in the Edmonton Journal’s Today’s Senior section in partnerhsip with Post Media and the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council on October 31, 2016, and in the winter 2016 edition of the Community Connections newsletter. A special big thank you to Loreen Wales from Revive Wellness and Imran Sumra from Our Parent’s Home for their help with this story.
When Chef Ana Maria Muhammad started her career with GEF Seniors Housing, she knew the kitchen at the lodge had a big responsibility.
“I quickly realized that this isn’t a restaurant, this is these seniors’ homes,” Muhammad says. She goes on to explain that she visually notices a huge difference in the people living in the lodge when the food is good. Since taking over the kitchen at Ottewell Place lodge, she’s opened up the lines to communication not just with the other staff but with the residents as well.
The idea of food playing directly into quality of life isn’t a novel concept. But the stigma around bad food in seniors’ homes is prevalent. So more chefs working in seniors environments are paying extra close attention to the food they serve and making sure they aren’t putting together menus in solitude.
Registered nutritionist and CEO of Revive Wellness Loreen Wales is excited to see this as a growing trend in seniors housing. She previously worked in a number of hospitals and explains that the food she saw being served to very sick people wasn’t going to do much for their health.
“People have a desire for that sense of empowerment and no one wants to feel like they’re being force-fed something,” Wales says. “Food is exciting! So much of our lives revolve around eating and the food we serve to people shouldn’t just be different components slopped together with no thought to taste.”
Wales explains that seniors are at a greater risk of malnutrition which can lead to a drop in immune-response and sarcopenia, a rapid loss of muscle mass in the body. She points out that seniors who eat better tend to live longer and don’t experience as many typical aging issues as quickly.
Chef Imran Sumra, Hospitality Manager at Our Parent’s Home in downtown Edmonton, prides his kitchen on fresh ingredients and quality meals for his menus. He holds both a Red Seal designation and a Diploma in Food and Nutrition Management and uses his wide knowledge base in his kitchen to create meals that follows closely the nutritional needs of seniors while still appealing to the residents’ palettes.
“A lot of seniors start to lose their appetites because of things like medications,” says Sumra. “So there has to be flavour and there has to be meals that they want to eat otherwise they simply won’t have that great quality of life we want them to have.”
Sumra’s focus on fresh ingredients plays both into how nutrients from herbs and vegetables are better absorbed into the body when they’re fresh but also the difference in quality. Our Parent’s Home’s kitchen boasts entrees from prime rib and steak to curries and lamb. For Sumra, he knows following budgets are important, but he will focus on quality over cost any day.
For Muhammed, opening up the lines of communication to the residents has meant she’s been able to expand the menu into working with some of the residents’ own home recipes while still working within the prescribed guidelines from the Canada Food Guide. GEF Seniors Housing works closely with Revive Wellness to review the menus and ensure that all the important points of nutrition are being met, while still making food that the residents are going to enjoy.
“I love that I get to keep learning about all these different foods,” Muhammed says. “The residents’ feedback helps make sure that everyone in the kitchen is always improving and getting better at what they do to make our residents happy.”
Muhammad’s passion for food easily translated into her work with seniors. “I just think about how much I love my parents,” she says. “And I look at the residents like they’re my parents too. What I serve from my kitchen, I would serve to my own parents.”