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Older people do a great deal for our communities — It’s time to ask what communities are doing for them

A version of this commentary appeared in the Vancouver Province, Winnipeg Free Press and the Halifax Chronicle Herald

The next time an older person reaches the cash register before you and begins slowly counting her nickels and dimes, take the extra time to consider how welcome that senior feels in your community.

Think about the bus steps she may have to climb with her purchases, the fast-changing crosswalk outside the store that’s built for the young and spry.

In some rural Canadian towns, those seniors now comprise 40 per cent of the population.

Older people do a great deal for communities.  They’re taxpayers and caregivers and without them, many communities would no longer be sustainable.  It’s time to turn the lens around and ask what communities are doing for them. The age-friendliness of our cities and towns needs to become a priority.

On October 15, a panel of international experts will meet in Winnipeg to discuss how the world’s rural and remote communities can be more age-friendly. The symposium, Age-Friendly Rural and Remote Communities and Places, follows a 2007 World Health Organization report that addresses the views of older people from every continent in the world.

The problems are remarkably similar.

Seniors everywhere said they need more accessible communities, better housing and more opportunities for social engagement. They want clean, well-maintained environments in which to spend retirement. Some live in quiet neighbourhoods they enjoy, but others complain of poor public transit and impatient drivers.

Providing age-friendly spaces, such as parks and well-maintained sidewalks, permits seniors to become active, healthy members of society. Better streets also mean opportunities for physical activity and social engagement. In short, a higher quality of life — for everyone.

Looking at these issues in rural and remote communities is important because many are rapidly ‘graying.’  Younger people leave to find employment; older generations stay behind.  Access to affordable housing and transportation options, for example, are major issues to address in these areas.  In fact, access to affordable housing with the proper accommodations is a basic requirement for good health.

As more people move to urban areas, there’s a tendency among city-dwellers to dismiss the needs of rural communities with small populations. However, our economy needs rural communities — agriculture, fishing, mining are all important parts of the Canadian fabric.  Therefore, it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure the sustainability of small towns by making them more liveable.

Creating a positive environment begins with the very structure of our buildings. Many seniors have difficulty with stairs in public buildings but also in their own homes. In other words, age friendliness reaches to the very design of our communities and organizations.

Governments and planners need to put older people’s needs on the agenda lest a large proportion of our population become excluded.  An older person may not leave the house if the curbs aren’t low enough to step over, or if there isn’t enough seating on the street to stop and rest.

There are also small things we can all do to make our communities age-friendly. We rarely slow down long enough to consider the needs of the older people around us. Whether it’s taking the time to speak more slowly or helping someone cross the street, everyone has a role in creating more inclusive communities for seniors.

And what’s good for the old is good for the young, too. An age-friendly community is more than a place that puts its seniors first. It’s a friendly community, period — and that’s something we should all be striving for.

Verena Menec is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, a Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Faculty of Medicine, and Director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba.

See the poster based on this commentary

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.