Are Canada’s suburbs age-friendly? Based on the recommendations in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Guide to Global Age Friendly Cities, many suburbs in Canada are missing the mark, especially in regards to transportation.
Learn more about some of the challenges of senior suburban living in Canada.
“Although most of Ontario’s largest cities have declared their intention to become ‘age-friendly,’ none have yet taken the basic step of amending their land-use plans to reflect that commitment,” says Glen Miller, author of a new report by the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
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“It is fair to say that our current suburbs are no place to grow old.”
According to the WHO, there are eight elements to an age-friendly city, and when it comes to active aging, all of these inter-related areas are critical:
As the WHO explains, these eight areas are interdependent: “Respect and social inclusion are reflected in the accessibility of the buildings and spaces and in the range of opportunities that the city offers to older people for social participation, entertainment or employment. Social participation, in turn, influences social inclusion, as well as access to information. Housing affects needs for community support services, while social, civic and economic participation partly depend on the accessibility and safety of outdoor spaces and public buildings. Transportation and communication and information particularly interact with the other areas: without transportation or adequate means of obtaining information to allow people to meet and connect, other urban facilities and services that could support active ageing are simply inaccessible.”
With this model, in many ways, transportation is the linchpin to an age-friendly city, and it’s an area that poses a major challenge for many rural and suburban communities across Canada. Seniors who live in rural areas may not have any neighbours in sight or walking distance, and subdivisions that feature large homes and properties, curvy roads, and cul-de-sacs offer more privacy, but fewer residents. The result?
“Many neighbourhoods lack the critical mass of population to support local services and amenities,” Miller says.
Most of Canada’s suburbs were designed for drivers, which is problematic for seniors, many of whom can no longer drive but still live in neighbourhoods that require a car to get around. In fact, in the Statistics Canada article “Profile of Seniors’ Transportation Habits,” researcher Martin Turcotte found that “people aged 65 to 74 were as likely as people aged 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 to live in neighbourhoods with the highest level of dependence on cars.”
For seniors who live in rural neighbourhoods across the country, transportation poses an even bigger challenge.
“In general, it is easier to provide care and health services at a senior’s home in an urban environment than a rural one, in part because professionals and care providers have less distance to travel. However, people in the 65-to-74 age group are slightly more likely to live outside census metropolitan areas and census agglomerations,” Turcotte found.
When it comes to driving, Turcotte found that many older women are at a disadvantage. “The current generation of seniors comprises a large number of women who have never driven. As a result, there is a substantial gap between the sexes with regard to having a driver’s licence, particularly in the 85-and-over age group,” he says. For these women, isolation is a serious concern. Seniors with memory or vision problems are also at greater risk of isolation in their communities because they are unable to drive.
“When amenities such as grocery stores, medical facilities or community centers are too far away to reach on foot, older adults who no longer drive become less active and are at risk of becoming isolated,” Miller says.
Not surprisingly, “people of all ages who live in higher residential density neighbourhoods are more likely to walk or take public transit when they go out; stores are more likely to be within walking distance, and public transit service is better,” Turcotte reports.
A solution is to build new subdivisions using a grid setup. Research by the Region of Waterloo “showed that 1950s subdivisions were constructed on a grid that facilitated walking, connected adjacent subdivisions, and provided direct access to shops and schools,” Miller says.
Without solutions to Canada’s transportation woes in existing rural and suburban communities, many seniors are forced to move away from their neighbourhoods where they have strong social connections into retirement communities or nursing homes in urban areas that can meet more of their needs. The Calgary Herald reports that “facilities for seniors are often located in newer suburbs, which forces seniors away from the neighbourhood they know.” The problem, however, is that moving away from communities where seniors have strong roots can further increase isolation and loneliness.
To achieve age-friendly cities that meet the standards outlined by the WHO, urban planners must shift rules, regulations, and building codes. Meeting the transportation needs of seniors can help them stay connected, active and independent in their existing communities without relying on a vehicle. For existing suburbs and rural areas, the responsibility of finding transit solutions to support a small number of seniors who would otherwise remain isolated is falling on towns and municipalities, many of which don’t have the funding for viable transit solutions.
However, without the ability to drive, take transit or walk, Canadians are unable to capitalize on the senior’s programs that are designed to keep them active, connected and healthy within their communities.
Have you experienced the challenges of senior suburban living in Canada? What has your experience living in the suburbs been like? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.