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The tragic impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the vulnerability of Canada’s older adults to the sudden onset of viral diseases like the novel coronavirus. Residents of long-term care facilities, many whom already have chronic underlying medical problems, have been disproportionately affected. Deaths in long-term care account for more than half of all coronavirus fatalities in some parts of the country, even though only 5 per cent of all seniors over the age of 65 live in long-term care and other specialized facilities.

While it is inevitable that there will be major investigations into the tragic impacts of COVID-19 in our long-term care facilities, it will also be important to remember that the vast majority of older adults, particularly the 65-to-74 cohort (often referred to by health professionals as ‘the young-old’) is generally healthier, wealthier and likely to keep working beyond traditional retirement age than previous generations.

As recently as January, the Economist noted that 2020 marks the ‘decade of the old,’ acknowledging that the impact of the baby boom — those born between 1946 and 1965 — is finally being felt around the world, as healthcare professionals, policy makers and marketing practitioners alike come to grips with the long-awaited ‘grey tsunami.’

In Canada, at least, the current generation of seniors also see themselves as productive members of society, and reject the idea that they are a special interest group. The size of this demographic bulge explains in part why bookstore shelves are bending under the weight of a glut of books that relentlessly stress the positive benefits of aging, with titles like ‘The Psychology of Successful Aging,’ ‘The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life,’ ‘Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives.’ ¹

By 2041, one in four Ontarians will be 65+. In at least nine smaller cities in Ontario, the percentage of seniors has already hit 24 per cent. For urban planners tasked with fixing a car-dependent environment — poorly suited to the needs of an aging population — the ‘decade of the old’ will be marked by our struggle to find practical solutions for preserving the quality of life for Ontario’s burgeoning population of seniors.

In the sprawling suburbs surrounding Toronto, for example, Ministry of Transportation officials estimate that by 2036, 42 per cent of residents over the age of 75 will no longer be driving. In suburbs dominated by single family dwellings, where shops, health facilities and other essential amenities are rarely within walking distance, this poses significant problems for aging baby boomers who will be in their eighties in 15 years’ time.

Another challenge, detailed by the IRPP in 2017,² is that suburban neighbourhoods in the GTA — and thousands like them across the country — offer few housing alternatives for anyone wishing to relocate to more walkable, amenity-rich places in the familiar neighbourhoods where they raised their families. This suggests that the goal of creating compact, walkable suburban communities remains largely aspirational. This view is compounded by results from the 2016 census, which shows that the percentage of residents 65+ living in suburbs surrounding the GTA increased by 20 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

Just over a decade ago, with considerable help from Canada through the Public Health Agency of Canada, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the concept of ‘age-friendly communities’ (AFC) as a framework designed to engage with older adults to help preserve their quality of life. The concept has since been widely adopted by municipal councils across the country (and around the world), but as research by the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) has shown, planning departments in Ontario’s larger cities have been slow to embrace AFC in ways that acknowledge political commitments by their Councils to ‘become age-friendly.’

There are several possible reasons for this. One is that the eight ‘domains’ comprising the AFC framework (‘Outdoor Spaces & Buildings, Transportation; Housing, Social Participation, Respect & Social Inclusion, Civic Participation & Employment, and Community & Health Services’) are a poor fit with how municipalities actually function. The City of Toronto’s recently adopted ‘Seniors Strategy 2.0’ tackled this shortcoming by organizing its recommendations under headings that better fit with the functional responsibilities of city departments (while still acknowledging the WHO framework).

A second explanation is a natural hesitation among planners to expend scarce resources on AFC when it can be argued that existing policies (such as policies focused on complete streets and walkability) are consistent with or complementary to the goals of AFC.

For municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the 2017 edition of the Growth Plan represented a potential sea change in this thinking, however, by explicitly urging planning departments to promote and support age-friendly design and development.

Toronto was the first major city to make such a commitment. Through its Seniors Strategy 2.0, the City has agreed to integrate AFC-specific policies into its new official plan. The rationale is to send an unambiguous message to developers and their consultants (and planners reviewing applications!) that City Council is serious about its commitment to become ‘age-friendly,’ and in so doing, fulfill its promise to the WHO. An important additional practical benefit is that including AFC-specific language in an OP can have an impact when it is time to allocate scarce dollars in departmental capital budgets and provide a rationale for recalibrating city-wide standards affecting roads, parks and more.

A third reason why AFC initiatives remain separate from mainstream municipal activity is the not unreasonable misconception that the focus of AFC is exclusively on seniors. “Age-friendly” is in fact intended to embrace the needs of all ages, although communicating this is admittedly an uphill battle. To paraphrase a quote from famed gerontologist Bernard Isaacs, “Developments and neighbourhoods designed for the young, exclude the old. Developments and neighbourhoods designed for the old, include everybody.” Not a bad way to think about tackling the challenges of ‘the decade of the old.’

By Glenn Miller FCIP, RPP – Toronto

¹ American essayist Arthur Krystal, writing in the New Yorker in 2019.

² G. Miller, “No Place to Grow Old: How Canadian Suburbs Can Become Age-Friendly,” Institute for Research on Public Policy, 2017

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