Klaus Gericke, 85, says laneway living has given him and his wife Jackie, 73, a new lease of life.
The couple moved from their bungalow in Edmonton last August to an 800-square-foot, purpose-built laneway home in Jackie’s daughter Jill Robert’s backyard in Calgary. And, so far, Mr. Gericke has nothing but praise for their arrangement.
“You get to an age where you have to downsize, but often you’re still too energetic to live in a seniors’ home,” the retired contractor says. “When you’re removed from young people, it’s not healthy; you only think like a senior, you watch too much television and you complain about your health. But when you live with young people, you’re more energetic and more liable to go out for walks and stay active.”
Mr. and Mrs. Gericke now share the lot and the backyard with Mrs. Robert, son-in-law Paul Robert and their six-year-old granddaughter, Sylvie.
“We’re just more in touch with young people,” Mr. Gericke says. “We have our little Sylvie and we babysit often, but we also hear about Jill and Paul’s jobs every day and we feel relevant.”
In the background of our conversation, a family dinner is being prepared in Mr. and Mrs. Gericke’s laneway home.
“I think we must be eating here tonight,” Mr. Gericke says. “Sometimes, we eat here, sometimes, we eat at theirs. In the summer, we’ll eat on the deck between the houses. It’s really nice.”
Mr. Gericke says the move has even been good for his dog, Rosco.
“My dog is 14 years old, but he’s like me; he’s in good shape for his age and he likes it here,” he says. “We take each other for walks every day. We like the chinooks and the other dog walkers are very friendly. I’ve grown quite attached to Calgary in a very short space of time.”
The importance of connection and the need for inner-city housing options that allow seniors to age-in-place were emphasized last month, when Canada’s Institute for Research on Public Policy issued a report called No Place to Grow Old.
The report criticizes the lack of housing options available for seniors looking to age-in-place and calls Canada’s car-dependent suburbs “isolating” for less mobile seniors. Currently, 66 per cent of Canada’s increasingly aging population live in suburban neighbourhoods.
Mr. Gericke agrees reduced mobility is one of the biggest issues facing his demographic and was a key consideration in the decision to move into their laneway home.
“I have problems with my optic nerve and if I can’t get a solution, I’ll have to give up driving, which would be terrible because I drive Rosco up to the hill every day for a walk. I’d hate to be dependent on anyone for that. But at least we have family right on our doorstep now and there’s also very good public transport here,” he says.
The wheels were set in motion for the Gerickes’ multigenerational living situation three years ago, when the couple first began to consider downsizing and moving to Calgary to be closer to Mrs. Gericke’s daughters.
“They were looking at condos to be near me or my sister, who lives in Canmore,” Mrs. Robert says, “but nothing really seemed right. Then one of Mom’s friends said, ‘Why don’t Jill and Paul build you something in their big backyard?’ and that planted the idea.”
Mr. and Mrs. Robert’s home in the northwest community of West Hillhurst is a small 1947 bungalow surrounded by a generous yard. It is Mr. Robert’s childhood home, which his own parents purchased in 1969.
“The house is small, but it’s perfect for us, we live in every inch of it and we love it,” Mrs. Robert says. “When we started talking about building a home for my parents in our yard, our neighbours scratched their heads a little over the idea. People couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t just knock down our house and build a bigger one with a suite for my parents, but that really goes against our values,” she continues.
Mrs. Robert, 43, works as a nurse and her husband Paul, 47, is a professor at the Alberta College of Art and Design. She admits one of the biggest challenges has been reconfiguring their family routine, but it’s one they’ve all been happy to take on.
“I haven’t lived with my parents in 25 years, so it’s been interesting to suddenly have them in our backyard, but we do love it. Sylvie runs over to Granny’s in the morning and Mom usually has dinner ready for Paul and me when we get home from work,” she says.
The success of their multi-generational laneway project is encouraging to those advocating for laneway zoning in Calgary. Currently, only selected neighbourhoods in the city are zoned for laneway structures with many critics citing aging-in-place options as an important reason there should be a blanket rezoning policy.
“There are lots of areas in Calgary which would be really well-suited to laneway housing but aren’t zoned for it,” says Mark Erickson, co-founder of Studio North, the practice that designed and built the Gerickes’ laneway home.
“Varsity, Brentwood and Wildwood for example are neighbourhoods with aging populations living on large lots. It would be great if those people had the option to build on their own property in a way that would allow them to downsize and age in place.”
“Laneway housing makes the living scenario for families really versatile,” he says. “It can provide a launch pad for kids coming home from college or a place for empty-nester parents, so they can rent out the bigger house or they could rent the laneway house to a caretaker. It also makes it possible for seniors to make good decisions for their health and well-being as they age.”
Mrs. Robert agrees that the city has been reluctant to embrace laneway culture.
“I think the city struggles with this concept of a multigenerational family that’s trying to live on one lot. I think they’re worried people see it as a way to generate income through sites like Airbnb, but that’s not our style and has never been the intention,” she says.
The Robert family still have unresolved issues with the city around their laneway home’s basement and land-use bylaws. But they’re still happy they built their laneway home and consider it an important addition to the family property and an heirloom for the future.
“It was never about investment for us, it was always about creating a family compound, which works for our situation. We were lucky we had the opportunity to do that with our property,” Mrs. Robert says.
“Our daughter Sylvie’s already talking about when she’s going to move into the laneway house,” she adds, laughing. “It’s nice to see those values coming through, even though she’s only 6.”