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Joyce Clearihue, 85, takes part in the Strong Seniors fitness class at the Monterey Recreation Centre in Oak Bay, BC Tuesday May 29, 2012. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)
Joyce Clearihue, 85, takes part in the Strong Seniors fitness class at the Monterey Recreation Centre in Oak Bay, BC Tuesday May 29, 2012. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)

2011 CENSUS

B.C. communities exemplify grey future outlined in census Add to ...

Joyce Clearihue is doing lunges and squats, a dumbbell in each hand. At 85, the retired physician puts in time at the Strong Seniors exercise class with some reluctance.

“I have to fight being a couch potato,” she said Tuesday. These organized activities keep her fit to carry on with the outdoor sports she loves – swimming in the Pacific and downhill skiing.

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On other days, the workout room at the Monterey recreation centre is given over to Zumba Gold dance classes – a Latin-inspired fitness program geared for seniors. Instructor Anna McGregor, 71, has had hip-replacement surgery three times but dances on. “There is a lot of hip action, but it also works the mind,” she said.

Yes, Canada’s population is getting older, the release of the 2011 census data on Tuesday shows. Communities like Oak Bay are ahead of the curve, and can offer a glimpse of what Canada will look like 20 years from now.

The census found that 14.8 per cent of Canadians were 65 or older in 2011, as the baby-boom generation begins to hit its next generational milestone. By 2036, as the baby boomers progress into elder status, the proportion of seniors in Canada is expected to rise to 39 per cent.

Oak Bay, where more than a quarter of the population is 65-plus, is already on its way. But it is still a spritely young thing compared to Qualicum Beach, another seaside community on Vancouver Island. There, almost half of the population has reached retirement age.

And as seniors like Dr. Clearihue and Ms. McGregor demonstrate, seniors are also living longer and staying healthier.

So while politicians like B.C. Premier Christy Clark fight for more federal health dollars to respond to the province’s aging population, some experts say the result of that demographic shift is not so clear-cut.

“It is not a crisis,” said Prof. Andrew Wister, chair of Simon Fraser University’s gerontology department. “The pressure on the health-care system isn’t that high until people reach 75, 80, 85 – and that point is being pushed back,” he said. “What that means is, we have a bit of time here to make adjustments.”

Qualicum Beach has made those adjustments: It has improved sidewalks to accommodate seniors’ scooters, for example. But the community is also trying to attract younger families to fill its schools. Less than 7 per cent of the population is under 15 years old – a 22-per-cent drop since the 2006 census.

British Columbia has been trying to get ahead of the curve since the 1990s when it adopted the “closer to home” approach to keeping seniors out of expensive acute and long-term care by offering home-support resources. Those efforts continue, as well as programs like “Age-friendly B.C.,” which offers local governments support to keep seniors active.

B.C. has the oldest population in the West, although it shares the same demographic trend with Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. It means some provinces are facing greater pressure on health-care funding than others, as Ottawa shifts to a strict per-capita health-care transfer program.

It is that imbalance that prompted the clearest division over equalization last January when the premiers met. The new funding formula delivers a windfall of almost $1-billion to youthful Alberta. B.C., home to seven of the 10 municipalities with the highest proportion of seniors in the country, called for an age-adjusted formula that would provide higher funding for those who consume the highest share of health-care services.

In Oak Bay, almost 28 per cent of residents are 65 or older, but at the local hospital, Royal Jubilee, it is clear that the demands on health care change as we age. Three out of every five patients who come through the door are over 65.

So when the hospital added a new tower for its growing number of patients, the facility was built with frail seniors in mind. Natural light is maximized to help patients keep their normal sleep rhythms, jarring noises are suppressed, pathways are marked with high-contrast colours. And to reduce delirium, patients are transferred as little as possible.

“The goal is to provide top-quality, elder-friendly care,” said Marilyn Malone, who specializes in geriatric medicine for the health authority. A baby boomer hitting 65 this year, however, is still not at the core of this new approach. It is patients over 75 who are most likely to arrive at Royal Jubilee with three different chronic conditions at the same time.

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