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Right Sizing

Smaller is not the only option for homeowners leaving the family home


A sprawling, 2,200-sq.-ft. penthouse with panoramic view of Burlington Bay fulfils a dream for Kathryn Hazlewood. "When I saw the penthouse, I went with my passion," she says.

By: Alex Newman Living, Published on Fri Feb 27 2015

Recently widowed, Kathryn Hazlewood found herself facing a big decision: Stay in the small Burlington apartment that had been home or move up to a 2,200-square-foot penthouse suite with a 1,500-square-foot terrace and a sweeping view of the bay and bridge.

It might not be a choice most single people of retirement age would even consider. But Hazlewood jumped at the chance to expand. The suite was large enough to accommodate the things she wanted at this stage of life and had panoramic views of Burlington Bay and the bridge.

“I was swept away by the place,” she recalls. “It reminded me of an album I once heard —Manhattan Tower — about a man who has a New York penthouse and feels he’s arrived.”

While growing up in Hamilton, Hazlewood would explore Burlington’s north shore and always dreamed of one day living in the area, even though her media career took her to Toronto and her married life took her to Muskoka for the summers.

As soon as she heard the penthouse was available two years ago, she called her accountant to see if she could afford it, then signed the lease. The size was actually a bonus, allowing Hazlewood to do things she hadn’t before, like hosting the whole family for Christmas dinner.

“There were 16 of us, and the little children had room to run all over. It was a place I knew everybody would come to. I’ve always been impetuous — when I saw the penthouse, I went with my passion. Happily, I had the financial stability to afford it.”

Although moving into a much larger home might seem an unusual retirement choice, designer MaryLynne Meschino, who decorated the penthouse, defends Hazlewood’s decision: “There’s no guarantee about anything in life so why not live the dream? That doesn’t mean ignoring reality — I’m as conservative and risk averse as the next person — but once you figure out the angles, then by all means jump in. I love the idea of giving yourself permission to honour your life and achievements.”

The suite was under renovation when Meschino was brought into the project, with the kitchen positioned in the centre of a large, open principal living space. In that open area she defined a living room, dining room and media room, distinguishing each by its own area rug and central lighting fixture. The palette of pale grey, blue and cream unites the spaces while texture and pattern add visual interest.

Roomy enough for two sofas and two chairs, the living area is also has a conversation/reading area in front of the fireplace. Meschino positioned two swivel chairs in front of the hearth that can turn to join the conversation in living room. In the dining area, the table expands, and there’s extra storage in a buffet positioned behind the sofa in the media area.

The suite satisfies Hazlewood’s functional needs but more so a deep need for beauty. “I lost my anchor when my husband died and there are many days when I miss him terribly,” she says.

“But when I come in the door to this beautiful place, I am home, this is me. It fulfils a dream of living near the water, and being surrounded by nature.”

While beautiful surroundings are important at any age, it’s especially so as we age, writes Lindsay Green in her 2013 book Finding the Perfect Home for a Long Life. We need a “deep connection to something positive, meaningful, invigorating and inspiring . . . depth of engagement is more important for well being in later years than in earlier life. (And it) must be beautiful to the eye, good for soul and energizing for body — and near nature.”

Sara and Kevin Shay, an empty-nester couple in Aurora, were faced with a different dilemma once their three children finished university and moved into condos in Toronto. Their beautiful six-bedroom, seven-bathroom home, once filled with the chatter of children and friends, felt very big and very empty, Sara says.

They decided to move to a condo in the city but 1,200 square feet — even with a substantial 800-square-foot terrace — felt cramped after the generous proportions of their country home.

“We’d have been divorced if we’d stayed in that condo,” Sara says, laughing. “The reason we’ve been married 35 years is because we respect each other’s space.”

So they sold the condo and, instead, purchased a 15-foot-wide Victorian house in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood with 2,100 square feet over three floors and a tiny backyard. The location is within walking distance of a doctor, dentist and hair stylist, grocery shops and good restaurants. The Shays have since been able to downsize from two cars to one. They also love the frequent laneway parties their neighbours host.

Sara says the move has allowed them to be far more active. “Our friends north of the city need to drive everywhere if they want to go out.”

Downsizers would be well-advised to consider these things, writes Green, because access to basic services and a feeling of belonging to a community become more important as we age. “Gathering places, coffee shops, libraries, busy sidewalks,” these are all good for creating connections with a community, and the proximity to services means reducing car-reliance.”

Like Hazlewood, the Shays did something a little unusual for this stage in life: turning the entire second floor into a luxurious master bedroom and ensuite.

“It was their dream — to have a large bedroom and amazing dressing room,” says Meschino who designed the space. And because they still wanted to accommodate their grown children to stay overnight occasionally, a bathroom on the third floor had to be built.

This echoes what Green writes about being near friends and family, those “emotional centres of support” who have been part of our lives for decades.

By the same token, she says, intergenerational connection enriches our lives so choose “to retire in a place that the grandkids think is cool and that they will want to visit is a big plus … (and) make sure your home can accommodate guests (to) make them and us feel at home.”

For Betty and Ross Cullingworth, who moved from a large family home in Hogs Hollow to a large condo in the same area, a knee replacement precipitated the need to think about their options in terms of maintenance — and stairs.

“Staying in the house meant renovations,” says Betty, “and my husband felt that if we started down that road, it would never end. Eventually we got to the point that maybe it was time to start looking.”

But they weren’t prepared to make the change if it meant “sacrificing” any of the aspects of their family home, location for one, and budget — but mostly its size. It had to be large enough to host bridge and book clubs, and entertain extended family and friends for holiday dinners.

But more importantly, it needed the footprint to accommodate Betty’s grand piano. She directs a choir and sometimes holds rehearsals for 20 or more at home.

When they walked into the 3,100 square-foot condo, Betty remembers thinking, “I could live here. And, oh! The piano could go right over there, and there’d still be room for us to entertain.”

Although it didn’t have the terrace Betty wanted for gardening and outdoor entertaining, there were two balconies.

Moving the piano was a bit of a feat, Betty admits. She had an anxious move day, wondering if it would fit into the service elevator. Otherwise, it would have been placed on top of the elevator — at great cost — to ride up to the condo. Her advice? Check into these details before making the move.

One of the big upsides was that their furniture and décor got a facelift. Designer Meschino reworked a lot of their existing furniture, added new things and brought out artifacts collected over the years from their extensive travels.

“We were able to keep so much,” Betty says. “Our couch was original from when we married 47 years ago, but MaryLynne removed the skirt, had wood legs installed and new fabric, and it’s a new piece.

“She took artwork from some of our trips and had them framed. In the living room, except for a few new lamps, there is nothing new, but recovered and refinished.”

Betty found the decluttering process “interesting, a little challenging, and cathartic.” Although many pieces were repurposed, some couldn’t be used and were donated.

Knowing what to give up and what to keep is the most stressful part of moving, she adds.

“You are reviewing your whole life.”

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