Seven years ago, Stanley Much left his one-bedroom apartment on a busy Edmonton street to move into a seniors’ lodge in the village of Holden, about 100 kilometres southeast of the city.
He liked that the town was safe and peaceful, that meals were all provided, but most of all that Holden Lodge had a built-in community of residents and regular social activities.
Without any family members in Edmonton, Much, 76, had been isolated, but at the lodge, he could play games and chat with other people over coffee.
“The big change was I was no longer alone,” he said.
But since Much moved in, that community has been shrinking. He remembers the 33-room lodge having more than a dozen residents. There are only seven now.
The situation isn’t sustainable for the Beaver Foundation, which runs the lodge and others with vacancies in the region.
Gene Hrabec, chair of the foundation’s board of directors and the deputy reeve of Beaver County, said with utility and other costs rising, the foundation might have to consider closing Holden Lodge and returning use of the building to the province.
“There’s going to be a line in the sand and, unfortunately, we’re getting to that,” he said in an interview.
The Beaver Foundation isn’t the only non-profit housing provider struggling to fill vacant units. Lodges in the central Alberta communities of Winfield and Consort also have vacancies of more than 60 per cent.
Seniors’ lodges are supportive living buildings that prioritize low-income seniors. Provincewide, the percentage of vacancies at seniors’ lodges more than doubled from 2016 to 2022. Ten per cent of all lodge units were vacant in 2016, but that rose to a peak of 21 per cent in 2022 before falling to 15 per cent last year.
The problem is most pronounced in central Alberta, where more than 25 per cent of all units have been vacant for the past three years.
The Alberta Social Housing Corporation, a Crown corporation, plans to hire a consultant to help review the seniors’ lodge program this year and make recommendations about its future.
Tender documents say part of that review “seeks to understand the factors pushing seniors away” from lodges as a preferred accommodation choice.
Jason Nixon, the minister of seniors, community and social services, said in a statement that the purpose of the review is expanding seniors’ lodges and facilities.
What are seniors’ lodges?According to a 2015 review of the program, seniors’ lodges were created in 1958 to free up space at hospitals that were housing seniors who didn’t need so much medical care.
Municipalities donated land for the lodges. Foundations, with board members from contributing municipalities, were formed to run them.
Alberta now has 150 lodges, up from 145 in 2019. Together they house thousands of seniors.
Lodge residents must be 65 or older. The rent they pay covers meals, laundry, housekeeping and recreation services.
WATCH | Central Alberta seniors’ lodges grappling with high vacancies:
Seniors’ lodge shrinking in central AlbertaThe Government of Alberta is reviewing the seniors’ lodge program, trying to understand why lodge usage in some communities has been declining.
Through a grant program, the province gives operators, known as housing management bodies, a daily allowance of $13.23 for each eligible low-income resident. Those grants and residents’ rents don’t cover the full cost of running the lodges so municipalities are requisitioned to pay for the deficits.
Nearly 70 per cent of lodges, according to the 2015 program review, are in rural communities where no other supportive living facilities are available.
Why did vacancies increase?People in the non-profit housing sector say multiple factors have contributed to the increase of lodge vacancies in recent years — from aging infrastructure to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Decades ago, many lodges were built with tiny rooms. Some included toilets and sinks but not full bathrooms.
Built in 1961, the 62-unit Homestead Senior Citizens’ Lodge in the town of Vegreville, 100 km east of Edmonton, has 10 “unrentable” rooms that are less than 200 square feet.
Residents gather in Holden Lodge’s common area for games with local students. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)Jerrold Lemko, a Vegreville town councillor and the board chair for the MD of Minburn Foundation, said Alberta seniors, who now live in larger homes and would like to bring more belongings with them to lodges, are looking for more space.
Population decline in towns, villages and rural areas could also be contributing to the trend.
The 2015 review of the seniors’ lodge program found that the population in some communities with smaller lodges had reduced substantially, leading to high vacancies and high operating deficits.
Outbreaks, deaths and restrictions in long-term-care facilities during the pandemic may have also led to more seniors staying in their own homes for longer.
“There’s been some reputation damage to the seniors’ living sector overall,” said Irene Martin-Lindsay, executive director of the Alberta Seniors and Community Housing Association (ASCHA), which represents almost all seniors’ lodges.
Future housing needsAs Alberta’s population ages and demand for affordable seniors housing increases, operators say lodges could be more fully utilized, but some changes are needed.
Lemko said the MD of Minburn Foundation hopes to demolish the wing of older rooms at its Vegreville lodge and expand to accommodate more seniors. He said a feasibility study showed that the greater Vegreville area has 680 residents now over the age of 80, but that number is expected to more than double in 10 years.
“We definitely need to expand to accommodate the needs of the future,” Lemko said.
Martin-Lindsay said ASCHA is forming a task force to advocate for funding increases from the province, among other changes, during the program review.
Alberta Municipalities is also urging the government to increase funding to housing management bodies.
That would “help alleviate an important aspect of the affordability crisis that Albertans are currently experiencing, and it would also help pay for capital upkeep and the replacement of seniors’ lodge facilities,” the organization said in an emailed statement.
One of the vacant rooms at Holden Lodge. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)Nixon’s press secretary, Heather Barlow, said the province gave lodges that reported their monthly expenses pandemic-related funding for the past three years. Last year, she said, the government saw those extra expenses shift away from things like cleaning costs and toward lost revenue due to vacant units.
In November, the government also announced it had allocated more than $2 million to help local organizations and seniors’ lodges house people in rural Alberta and Indigenous communities.
Incentives for seniorsBack at Holden Lodge, the Beaver Foundation has arranged for weekly visits from a doctor, lowered rent by $200 a month and approved smoking medical marijuana in a designated room — all to attract more residents.
Hrabec said expanding the kinds of services provided by home care could allow some residents to stay in the lodge for longer.
“I just hope that we can make it through the next couple of months and work with the government to come up with some solutions,” he said.
Holden Lodge resident Vickie Pointer plays a board game with other residents and student visitors. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)Lodge resident Vickie Pointer, 73, said she feels at home at Holden Lodge and likes the community’s small size, but more company would be nice.
“I just think it would be a lot more fun for everybody if we could get more people in, and it would help the lodge here too,” she said.