Living Alone? Alternatives to traditional housing options

October 5, 2012 – Living alone in as we age can be challenging, socially, practically, and financially, People often presume that retirement homes or institutional care are the only alternatives to living independently in your own home. There are other options. Just as everyone has different means, needs, and preferences, a single housing type and arrangement is not going to suit everyone equally.

This is especially true as people face new challenges with age, particularly for those living alone – who are often at higher risk of experiencing low income, isolation, and loss of independence. Traditional housing arrangements, such as retirement homes or nursing care do not suffice for single seniors. They can be too expensive, removed from your own community, or just the wrong fit for your particular needs. New housing trends are increasingly on the radar, adding new options for seniors who can’t or don’t want to live alone or in traditional housing options.

Growing trend of single seniors

According to the 2011 Census data, the percentage of people living in a couple is declining with age – 70% of all seniors aged 65 and over lived as a couple compared to only 22% of those aged 85 and over. Beyond mere age, the census shows a “grey divorce” trend of an increasing number of older adults getting divorced, dealing with the financial challenges of divorce, and now living alone.

Older women in particular are more likely to live alone in old age.  Women over 65 are almost twice as likely to live alone compared to men their age and are often in much more vulnerable financially than their male counterparts, according to Statistics Canada.

Compared to those who are living in a couple, single seniors living alone are often more vulnerable and at risk of experiencing lower incomes – pre and post-retirement and increased isolation and social mobility, among other challenges.

What are alternative housing options?

Single older adults can overcome these challenges with the right housing option. However, since many do not know what is available or where to find alternatives, many look to long-term care or retirement homes, which have long wait-lists and often high costs or co-pays.,  Although most people want to live at home for as long as possible, comprehensive homecare options are not yet readily available or affordable. Beyond the obvious call for more affordable housing and rent subsidies, other housing alternatives need to be made available. Examples of alternatives are increasingly evident in other countries with similar aging demographics.


Denmark, for example, has a long history of cohousing, with more than 100 such homes currently in operation. Cohousing is two or more individuals sharing a home and its related costs, where each has their own private space but share common areas like the kitchen and living room. This allows individuals to live independent lives while having access to assistance and companionship from other residents. It lowers housing costs and related expenses since they are shared and can be coordinated with support services such as meal preparations, transportation, house keeping, and organization of recreational activities.

Some projects in Canada include other assisted living services such as personal care. For example, in Barrie, Ontario, there has been a recent co-housing movement led by the Barrie/Simcoe CARP Chapter and partner organizations like Solterra Co-Housing Ltd. Organizations, like Solterra, act as a third party to facilitate the planning, managing, and maintenance of a shared residence, including the attainment of in-home support services such as care to manage health and safety, food preparation, and organization of social activities. Another large cohousing movement is seen in British Columbia with cohousing complexes where numerous families, not exclusive to seniors, own their own suites but share common areas such as a guest suite, library, and entertaining spaces. The important distinction between this model and any other condominium project is the shared planning for assisted living services and communal living activities

Intergenerational Housing

Intergenerational housing is another option. As the name suggests, intergenerational housing involves more than one generation of the same family living in the same house but often in separate units. There is typically a larger principal dwelling and another smaller secondary dwelling with a private bathroom and kitchen.

This arrangement allows seniors to live with their families and have access to assistance, but still enables them to maintain an independent life. Depending on the agreement between the two generations, housing costs can be lowered and made more affordable for both parties. Building codes and municipal by-laws must be taken into consideration as they vary widely among municipalities.

Cohousing and intergenerational housing is not for everyone, but for single seniors the two options are legitimate alternatives to expensive retirement homes and to the institutional care offered by nursing homes. These options can reduce the potentially negative affects of living alone.

More information on the concept of cohousing and information about cohousing options across Canada.

More information on the concept of Intergenerational Housing