It’s a Wednesday evening in Wakefield and Glennis Cohen has just pegged another two points in her cribbage game — she’s ahead early, but isn’t too confident that she’ll be able to beat her neighbour, “the expert,” Gilbert Pilon.
“We’re both pretty good,” said Cohen, referring to her partner – in crib and in life – Phil, Wakefield’s village poet, who slides in next to her a couple of times a week to play cribbage against their neighbours at Sully Gardens. “Gilbert is an expert. And we have to do it in French.”
Playing weekly cribbage is just one of the many activities that keep seniors like the Cohens busy at Sully Gardens, Wakefield’s low-income home for seniors. From board game and movie nights to group meditation sessions, the 11 residents that call the Gardens their home have turned a building into a community.
“At Christmas time, our concierge always makes Christmas dinner for everybody,” said Glennis. “Whenever we have extra food, like a hamburger or something, we put it out and let people take it.”
Sully Gardens has become more than just a shelter for seniors in Wakefield; it’s an integral piece of the puzzle in helping older folks remain in the community. The building is located in the heart of Wakefield, a stone’s throw from Brunet Pharmacy and the Des Collines Medical Clinic and a short walk to the Wakefield General Store.
“We’re happy to be here,” added Glennis, pulling a fourth baking sheet out of the oven. There are loads of cookies spread out across the kitchen table in anticipation of Phil’s 85th birthday, which took place Jan. 30 – another social event for the residents.
“Of course, we invited everyone,” she says, handing this reporter a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie.
Regular gatherings, such as celebrating Phil’s birthday, help seniors in the area combat isolation and loneliness, which have been on the rise in Canada over the last several years.
According to a Health Canada 2020 report, one in five seniors aged 65 or over in Canada has experienced loneliness, and close to one in four seniors reported “barriers to social participation.”
Merwyn McCullough said she knows this all too well. The 84-year-old resident of Sully Gardens has a brother in long-term care in Calgary. She said she wishes he lived in a place like the Gardens.
“Many, many people could live like this without going into long-term care,” McCullough said, speaking to this reporter from inside her apartment, which is small, but has everything she needs: a small kitchenette, her own bathroom, a living room where she can watch her daytime TV and a patio overlooking the village. She said she’s grown to love every minute of the decade-plus she’s lived there.
“There is really good things happening in this world that doesn’t require lying in a bed and staring at the ceiling,” she said, adding that she doesn’t know what her life would be like without Sully Gardens. She’s lived there for 15 years and considers herself “damn lucky to be here.”
She was displaced from her apartment last February after a fire, and has yet to return to her unit. She’s been staying in another unit after another tenant was transferred to long-term care. McCullough, who pays less than $500 in rent, called Sully Gardens her “lifeline.”
“I just love it here, this place is a jewel for me,” said McCullough. “I’m retired, and all of a sudden, this is affordable. Where else could we live for this kind of money?”
Not a lot of options for seniors
There aren’t a lot of options for seniors like McCullough in the region. According to a 2021 study from socio-economic organization La Table de dévelopment social des Collines-de-L’Outaouais (TDSCO), there are more than 6,400 residents over the age of 65 in the region, but only 162 private and social housing units available; a number that will rise by 12 when Farm Point’s Résidence du Petit Bois opens later this year.
The federal government has agreed to invest $1.8 billion into Quebec’s housing strategy, but that money is contingent on the province “streamlining the process” for social and affordable housing projects, according to Pontiac Liberal MP Sophie Chatel. She told the Low Down that her government is also pressuring Quebec to drop provincial sales tax from rental construction properties, similar to what Ontario has done.
Gatineau MNA Robert Bussière wouldn’t comment last year on whether or not his party would consider dropping QST.
Waiting lists for affordable housing soaring
Waiting lists for social and affordable housing across the country are at an all-time high, according to Stats Canada, with more than 227,000 households waiting for an affordable housing solution.
In Quebec, that number is just over 50,000 and growing. In the Outaouais, more than 1,400 households are waiting for subsidized housing, according to Office d’habitation de l’Outaouais (OHO) spokesperson Karina Osiecka.
She explained that the low-income property at Sully Gardens offers two types of housing: affordable and subsidized. She explained that subsidized housing is priced at 25 per cent of a family’s household income, which usually ends up between $300 and $500, while affordable housing prices are set at “below the median market rent.”
Osiecka said she’s aware of how important low-rental units are for seniors. Her non-profit organization manages 4,000 units with more than 7,000 tenants across the province. That’s why she said it has taken longer than her organization has hoped to get two vacant units at Sully Gardens ready for new Wakefield tenants. The units, which were damaged in an apartment fire last February, have sat empty for close to a full year, which forced McCullough to temporarily relocate. A third unit was also empty for several months last November, but Osiecka said the organization needs to adhere to specific processes for tendering the work and has “no control over the deadlines of specialized companies.” She said the work is expected to be completed this spring.
“It is very important for many seniors to be able to stay in the communities where they grew up. It is well known that ‘uprooting an old tree is not good,’” she added. “If someone has lived in a place all their life, they have a place of reference, and they are an integral part of their community.”
The OHO also manages another 12 subsidized and affordable units at the Villa des Collines housing complex in Masham.
While it’s a drop in the bucket for what’s needed in the region, these two low-income options are helping seniors grow old in the same places they grew up.
And with a handful of neighbours who are always up for some fun, Glennis will have lots of time to practise her crib game to perhaps one day beat the Sully Gardens crib master. And Glennis confirmed that they always play “Muggins” rules (If you miscount your points, your partner can steal them.)