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Ever before the pandemic arrived, Steve Neilson had been considering how long he’ll be able to keep living out his retirement years in a secluded village on Vancouver Island.

The 60-year-old’s home in Gold River, B.C., is more than an hour away from the nearest doctor’s office. It took an ambulance 45 minutes to arrive when he recently called for one of his friends.

The next logical move for Mr. Neilson would be to a retirement home in a bigger town or city. But like many retirees, he worries about how safe that will be, given that deadly illnesses like COVID-19 have been shown to spread quickly through congregate living spaces.

“My main concern is living in a facility that has a lot of people in it, and I don’t know how things are with visitation and how many people are in and out of these places,” he said.

The pandemic and its disproportionate toll on long-term care homes and other congregate living centres has prompted many Canadians to reconsider their retirement plans, and few of them know whether they have enough saved.

In a recent survey by IG Wealth Management, 63 per cent of respondents said they would now prefer to spend their retirement in their own home, rather than in a retirement facility. The same survey found 88 per cent of working respondents were unsure about the amount of money they needed to ensure their monthly expenses are covered during retirement.

Debbie Gilbert, a Toronto-based certified professional consultant on aging, said people’s approach to planning for retirement and their opinions of retirement homes have been changed by COVID-19.

“My practice [known as Generations] has gotten busier during the pandemic because people are really struggling with this,” Ms. Gilbert said.

“People are very afraid of getting sick and for good reason – the care homes have taken the brunt of COVID cases and these are people at their most vulnerable.”

She said people often assume the cheapest avenue is to spend the duration of their retirement at home, but it can actually end up being the most expensive option.

“People typically have no clue how expensive staying at home can be,” said Ms. Gilbert, who also worked as an occupational therapist and rehab consultant for 25 years. She added that underlying conditions like heart disease or Parkinson’s disease can greatly increase costs associated with retirement.

Retirees may need to renovate parts of their home over time to accommodate single-floor living, accessible washrooms, and hallways and archways wide enough for a mobility device. Those changes could cost tens of thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of dollars, while potentially lowering the value of one’s home.

Eventually, seniors can also expect to need help from personal support workers, whether it’s a couple of times a week, or for a few hours each day.

Before the pandemic, Ms. Gilbert said rates for a personal support worker from an agency ranged between $27 and $33 an hour across Canada. But she said those hourly rates have increased by a couple of dollars to incentivize PSWs to keep working during the pandemic.

While the cost could be manageable for someone needing a couple of hours of help with cleaning or cooking twice a week, they could add up to more than $50,000 a year for someone who needs five hours of assistance each day. Experts say people could expect even higher costs for at-home care, sometimes in the six-figures, depending on their health at old age, and if they need two PSWs at once for certain services.

A lower amount of money would cover the base price of a standard retirement home, which Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. pegged at roughly $46,000 a year, on average, in Ontario; $34,000 in Atlantic Canada; and $40,000 in British Columbia, in 2020.

While those costs can rise depending on extra care needed for residents with mobility issues or Alzheimer’s disease, they would generally fluctuate less than if you had to cover expenses in your own home.

“There’s financial risks to staying in your home and perhaps paying more for care than you would otherwise pay in a retirement or nursing home,” said Jason Heath, a certified financial planner and managing director of Objective Financial Partners, a fee-only financial planning firm in Markham, Ont.

“You run the risk of running out of money.”

He pointed out that people who remain in a home they own don’t have the same financial flexibility that comes with selling your home when you move to a facility, which allows retirees to access more cash to cover potentially higher health costs later in life.

Retirees who are trying to stay in their own home as long as possible do have the option of getting a reverse mortgage, which allows people over the age of 55 to access up to 55 per cent of the value of their home in a loan.

“Reverse mortgages get a bad rap because the interest rate tends to be higher,” Mr. Heath said.

“But frankly, when you’re 75 years old, and you’re retired and not working and don’t have an income, you’re not going to be able to borrow much from a traditional bank, so a reverse mortgage may be an option worth considering to stay in your home.”

Still, Ms. Gilbert points out there are more than just financial considerations when it comes to deciding where you retire.

She said seniors should ask: Is my home near a pharmacy, doctors and medical specialists? When I stop driving, am I near reliable public transportation or within walking distance of amenities?

Ms. Gilbert said it’s also important to consider proximity to family and friends. If you’re distant from loved ones, a retirement home can offer a more social environment that’s better for your long-term health.

Back in Gold River, Mr. Neilson plans to live in his own home as long as he can – and he has the savings to accommodate that.

“I’m hoping that I can stay in my home for at least another 10 years.”

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