At one of Nanaimo’s most affordable seniors’ homes, residents find belonging

Oak Tree Manor’s staff are ‘outstandingly supportive,’ family members say, and the founder aims to put affordability over profit.

This story highlighting an affordable seniors’ home is part of our solutions series on rental affordability in Nanaimo, Making Rent. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for the latest updates on this reporting. If you want to see more reporting like this, please support it.

Caring for her 92-year-old father at home felt like opening a jack-in-the-box everyday — Kathy Anderson never knew what to expect when she returned home. 

“He is like a toddler that is too top heavy and has too much information to be able to be safe alone,” she says. Kathy recalls one incident of coming home from work to the house flooded from the kitchen faucet being left on. 

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Maintaining her career and own life, while also providing needed care for her father, became a balancing act she mentally couldn’t keep up. Her father, Cliff, earns his Canadian pension, Old Age Security and provincial senior’s supplement, which brings in roughly $1,600 monthly — not leaving much of a budget to live independently at home. Luckily, Kathy found a website to help find her father a suitable place to live. 

A Place for Mom is a free service for families across Canada and the U.S. to help find a suitable placement for their older relatives depending on the level of support they need. The website has local advisors who supply detailed lists of potential affordable seniors’ homes and help with move-in support. (The company collects a listing fee, which allows them to offer their referral service free to families.) 

“We probably wouldn’t have found an affordable place without them,” says Anderson. 

Soon after, Cliff moved into Oak Tree Manor in Nanaimo. There, he could receive support for his medical needs, quality meals and weekly housekeeping, at a cost of roughly one thousand dollars less per month than other private care communities. 

What is Oak Tree Manor and who does it serve?

Oak Tree Manor is a private, independent supportive living facility for seniors over the age of 65 who don’t need support with daily tasks, but would benefit from a meal service and being in community. 

The building is a quaint three-storey, 63-unit complex located at the heart of downtown Nanaimo on 325 Hecate Street. The patio decks overlook the Nanaimo harbour and suites boast a lot of sunlight. It features a mixture of bachelor, one-bedroom and two-bedroom suites that are self-contained with wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and a kitchenette. 

Services like meals and light housekeeping are a big reason why 72-year-old Maya Godding moved to the affordable seniors’ home two years ago. 

“I had some health issues that made me realize I needed to find a place where I didn’t have to do so much,” says Godding. “It’s so nice to walk into the dining room, sit down and get served. I don’t have to cook. I don’t have to clean up. I don’t have to go grocery shopping. It’s really good all around.”

Chef Samantha Gagnon says their menu is so good because it’s created from what residents say they want. Gagnon, who has worked at several other seniors’ communities, says most places have a set meal rotation every 4 to 5 weeks, whereas their menu changes weekly. Residents are given a weekly menu in advance which has alternative options on the backside and space to make suggestions to the cooks.

One of the biggest draws to Oak Tree Manor though isn’t what is on the menu, but the affordability of it. The lowest rent for a bachelor suite is roughly $1,500 monthly, which includes meals, housekeeping and heat. There are additional charges for WiFi.

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the average independent living bachelor suite on Vancouver Island was $2,584 in 2020 ($1,621 in Nanaimo) and around $4,500 monthly for a private assisted living space that provides meals, housekeeping and medical care. 

This is beyond the budget of half of all single seniors in B.C., who must live off a fixed annual income of $27,000 or less.

Although Oak Tree Manor’s rent is affordable for most single seniors in B.C., residents are not required to be low-income to apply for tenancy. The facility requires that residents are at least 65-years-old and can function independently by managing most daily tasks. The needs and independence of the residents range widely, just as much as their ages — general manager Paul O’Neil says the oldest resident turns 103 this May. 

Related: Retiring into Uncertainty: As low-income seniors in Nanaimo struggle to find affordable housing, community groups step up to help.

The front entrance of Oak Tree Manor's affordable seniors’ home shows a three-storey complex with a hanging basket at the front window.
The Oak Tree Manor complex provides modest accommodations at an affordable price. Photo submitted by Paul O’Neil

How does this affordable seniors’ home make it work?

Oak Tree Manor is able to pull off affordable rates due to the generosity and vision of the Turner family, who founded the Turner Foundation in 1994. The Vancouver-based charity supports children in Africa to access basic necessities such as clean water, food and education. 

Ten years ago, the family saw a need for affordable housing and the opportunity to purchase the Nanaimo property presented itself. The private facility is a for-profit business and does not receive any government support. 

“Although the company operates as a business, the vision behind it was never to make as much profit as possible,” says Oak Tree Manor director Nyal Wilcox, noting that they’ve prioritized keeping rents affordable over repaying their initial investments in the facility. “The Turner family has always been passionate about philanthropic opportunities, and creating this affordable housing complex was something they created to be proud of.”

The founder of the organization has since passed away, though his children now rotate responsibility being active board members for Oak Tree Manor. 

What can residents expect at Oak Tree Manor?

Family members surround Eleanor Blakeborough in her private room at Oak Tree Manor in 2019.
Family members surround Eleanor Blakeborough in her private room at Oak Tree Manor in September of 2019. From left to right, Allison, Johnny and Eleanor Blakeborough and Tami Joseph. Photo submitted by Johnny Blakeborough

Currently, 65 people call Oak Tree Manor home, with a short waitlist to get in. Their home is a place that requires very little from them, but offers a lot of support. 

Johnny Blakeborough helped his mother Eleanor move into the complex in 2017 after the family ruled out much more costly local alternatives. As her Parkinson’s continued to deteriorate her health, affecting her speech and other motor skills, her anxiety about socializing increased, Blakeborough says. 

“She had a lot of challenges eating in the cafeteria. Even though the complex had a policy against eating in your room, they changed the policy so that my mom could stay at Oak Tree Manor and they brought food up to her,” says Blakeborough. “They were very supportive, and looked after my mom until she passed away in September of 2019.”

His mother was supported in her decision to use medically assisted suicide to end her life after her courageous battle with Parkinson’s disease. “She threw a party at Oak Tree and everyone came and they treated her like royalty, like she got a manicure and a pedicure and got her hair done,” recalls Blakeborough. “So as far as ways to go, it was the best. The staff at Oak Tree were outstandingly supportive throughout the whole process.”

A Vancouver Island Health Authority employee is on site everyday to support residents who need help with their medications and health. 

Without the worry of cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping, residents have more time to socialize and keep active as well. 

“We have an 83-year-old gentleman who kayaks and bikes frequently,” says O’Neil. “Since we are close to downtown, residents can take the Regional District’s HandyDART to Port Place to do shopping or walk the waterfront. It’s a very vibrant community here.”

How can we make more affordable seniors’ homes like this?

In January, Oak Tree Manor affordable seniors’ home staff and one resident dress up in bright coloured onesies some with bunny ears in the dining hall for pajama day.
In January, Oak Tree Manor staff and one resident show off their onesies for pajama day. Photo submitted by Paul O’Neil

“For people who don’t have the good fortune of robust savings, finding a home for the final years of life becomes a dark calculus,” says Blakeborough. “It’s eating into your savings, which gives your life a finite length.” He visited about six or seven different places with his mother in 2017 and the quality of the food and facilities at Oak Tree Manor far surpassed all of them. 

“Without the support of a generous benefactor, Oak Tree Manor would not be able to sustain its low rental rates and valued services to residences,” says O’Neil. But much of the value in what Oak Tree Manor offers doesn’t involve any money; it’s the dedicated staff who make the facility a place of belonging.  

“We have a small staff here and I think that is what makes it feel like a family atmosphere,” says Gagnon. “One of our resident’s husband was sick and a coworker brought her flowers — a gesture a relative would often do. Some of the people here don’t have any family around, so we are like a family. It feels more like a home than a facility.” 

“We don’t always get it right here, but we learn and grow the best we can,” says O’Neil. “We do have a great staff here. It’s a great job knowing that you’re actually making a big difference in the lives of people.” [end]

This story is part of our series on rental affordability in Nanaimo, Making Rent. Have a local solution to share? Get in touch.

Editor’s Note May 20, 2021: The article was updated to clarify that Oak Tree Manor has additional monthly charges for WiFi .

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