Radical resthomes: Old people should live everywhere


Part of a CBC Sunday Edition exploration of alternative living arrangements

By David Gutnick, CBC News Posted: Nov 02, 2014 5:00 AM ET Last Updated: Nov 02, 2014 5:10 AM ET

How do we want to live as we grow old and need more care? Janet Torge thinks it's time for a discussion about alternatives.

How do we want to live as we grow old and need more care? Janet Torge thinks it’s time for a discussion about alternatives. (Canadian Press)

Radical Resthomes 17:23

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It sounds like a bit of an oxymoron: Radical Resthomes.

But that’s the idea that Janet Torge and her website have been expounding. Radically different from the stereotype.

Aren’t seniors’ residences boring places for bingo, movie afternoons and white bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off? Or worse, prisons for the incarcerated elderly?

Not in Torge’s world. For 30 years she has been imagining and re-imagining a different way of growing old.

Then, a little while back, she heard a Sunday Edition documentary about the Baba Yaga’s House — a group of aging feminists in Paris who designed a vibrant community where they could grow old together. And that helped focus some of her ideas.

Torge, a freelance documentary film producer, lives in Montreal and wants to see similar experiments take hold in Canada, for men and women; alternatives to the profit-driven, regimented seniors’ residences popping up all over the country.

She has found hungry audiences, many of them women in their 50s, 60s and 70s wherever she goes.

“I am 67 years old,” she says. “I have no registered pension plan, I still work.”

Janet Torge

Montrealer Janet Torge wants us to start talking about new ways of living as we age. (Photo courtesy Janet Torge / CBC)

For Torge, money has always been tight and a couple of years ago she downsized from a 7 ½ room apartment.

She now lives on the first floor of a small duplex she bought with her son, who lives with his family on the second floor.

“It works perfectly for now,” says Torge. But she is not sure it’s going to last

“How will I pay my bills if I get sick and can’t work?” she asks. “Who is going to be my caretaker? Will I have to totally depend on my son and daughter in law?”

Women in the audience in this Ottawa backyard nod their heads in agreement.

‘Not getting it’

Torge has spoken to a number of groups over the last year about her ideas of alternative living arrangements for seniors.

She talks about the effect the growing number of seniors will have on families and on the economy.

Living arrangements

Finding the right architectural and interpersonal design — the right amount of togetherness or solitude — can be a life-long challenge.

Today, many people are experimenting with things like co-housing, tiny portable houses and with radical de-cluttering, not to mention off-the-grid hermitage.

This season, The Sunday Edition is paying special attention to people doing it a little differently.

And so if you know about an original kind of living arrangement — or have put together one yourself— please let us know about it by visiting our website, or emailing the program at: thesundayedition@cbc.ca.

If you’re really alternative, you can sit down and write a letter to The Sunday Edition, CBC Radio One, P.O. Box 500, Station A Toronto, M5W 1E6.

“There are a whole bunch of businesses that are trying to figure out how to make money off us,” she says. “Cars are being designed so we can get in and out of them. There are cool-looking walkers.”

But Torge says the housing industry has “really got it wrong.”

She recently attended a presentation by federal civil servants on the future of seniors’ housing, and left disappointed “because it is all about quantity of seniors and not about the quality of the lives that we want to live. They are not getting it.”

Torge says she often hears housing experts promoting institutional living, but says “I do not want to lose my decision-making about where I want to live.”

“When I look at what is an alternative,” says Torge, that means “to me you create the rules of your own living. You do not walk into somebody else’s rules.”

Torge says there are all kinds of alternatives to large institutions for seniors. She says there is no problem coming up with ideas, though some of them require having a bit of a nest egg to start things off.

In Montreal, Torge has started Radical Resthome discussion groups, and was surprised when people in their 40s and 50s showed up wanting to participate and start planning alternative living arrangements.

“When do we do this? This is the big question that everybody has,” she says. “I do know that it will happen after you have accepted that you have to downsize and before you get sick. Those are the only parameters I know. You will have to learn to share with others.”

Build a network

Torge’s vision is to build a Radical Resthomes network so that all those with real housing alternatives can share their experiences, resources and solutions to problems.

“We’re going to run up against some real challenges as we age, get ill and need help.

“If a housing project in Saskatoon has figured out how to deal with a housemate who is getting dementia, I want to know what they came up with. We have to help each other if we want to stay in control of our lives.”

Torge says that over time she has finally defined what makes a real “radical resthome.”

They are “run and managed by the people who live there,” she says. “Residents look after each other, and when help is needed resources come to you, you are not shipped out. And we die in our own beds, not in an institution.”

Torge says that years ago someone asked the urban planner Jane Jacobs where old people should live and she said “everywhere.” That’s also one of the parameters.

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