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Life Downsizing? Five things to look for in an age-friendly community

Instead of just downsizing into a condo or one-storey bungalow, researchers say, retirees should consider what their broader surroundings may offer as their needs change.

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This is part of a series on aging well.

Empty-nesters in search of new digs may have a wish list that looks something like this: warm climate, tennis courts, golf courses, walking trails and a spare room for the grandchildren to stay.

But here's the thing. What we want at age 65 may not be what we need 10, 20 or 30 years down the road. Even the most physically active kale-eaters among us could have a stroke or end up in a wheelchair in early retirement.

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As boomers cash out of Canada's searing-hot real-estate market, gerontologists are urging newly minted seniors to think hard before choosing their next dream home. Cognitive decline, or loss of a spouse, could push them out sooner than they think. And life in Canada's greyest municipalities – Qualicum Beach, B.C., for example, is 52-per-cent seniors – may not be for everyone.

Instead of just downsizing into a condo or one-storey bungalow, researchers say, retirees should consider what their broader surroundings may offer as their needs change. Here are five things to look for in an age-friendly community:

Car-free transportation

Many of us assume we'll be driving until the day we die. But now that people are living longer, more and more of us will end up with vision problems, physical disabilities or cognitive impairments that prevent us from driving years before we take our last breath.

House hunters nearing retirement should think about how they would get to the grocery store, pharmacy, swimming pool or a friend's house without a driver's licence, said Jim Dunn, a professor of health, aging and society at McMaster University. When retirees choose to live in car-oriented communities, "it may actually curtail the amount of time they can live independently."

Communities that offer amenities within walking distance, and good bus, train or streetcar service, can help seniors age in their own homes. For older adults in urban areas, Dunn said, multi-unit buildings on transit routes "make the most sense."

Meaningful relationships

When deciding to move later in life, it's important to choose a community where you can "either maintain, redevelop or re-establish your social network," said Raza Mirza, a senior research associate at the University of Toronto and network manager for the non-profit National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly.

Older adults should think twice about moving to places that lack community centres and activities that draw like-minded people. Finding friends to go bowling with may not be enough. "You want to have reciprocal relationships with the community," Mirza said, "so you're looking for opportunities for employment, or volunteering."

Some retirees may gravitate toward communities with a high ratio of seniors, only to discover that they "don't want to live in the older person's ghetto," Dunn said. Before moving, older adults should pay close attention to their specific social needs. Social isolation, especially later in life, "is quite literally deadly," he said.

Mental stimulation

Many new retirees can't wait for all the golfing, Zumba classes and exotic travels in their future. But a leisure-focused life may quickly lose its charm.

"Boomers are no longer interested in bingo," noted Mary Ann Murphy, who holds a cross-appointment in aging and sociology at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus. She recommends checking for lifelong learning opportunities in a neighbourhood of choice. Many colleges and universities offer free tuition to people over 65 for a variety of courses. Other adults may prefer to search out creative activities, such as community arts projects and music groups.

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Health services

Planning for healthy aging after retirement goes beyond choosing to live near a hospital. The community should have an adequate number of family doctors and medical clinics, too. Health and social services should be accessible to older adults using any mode of transportation, the World Health Organization noted in its Checklist of Essential Features of Age-Friendly Cities, released in 2007. In addition, health-care staff must be "respectful, helpful and trained to serve older people," the WHO said.

Care in the twilight years

Boomers may see retirement as a last chance to live on a houseboat or a quaint island before senescence forces them into a nursing home. But the plan to move again some time in the distant future could set them up for a harsh transition, and ultimately, poorer health. With every move, especially later in life, "the change is really hard on people," Mirza said. The research shows that elderly people tend to be healthier and happier when they stay in their homes.

Giving up the houseboat fantasy may be worth the price if older adults can remain or settle in a community where family and friends can help. Otherwise, retirees should make sure that affordable home-care services are available in their area. Personal care, housekeeping, snow removal and yard work services could help them remain at home until their last days, Dunn said.

The notion of living out one's final years in a seniors' home is a North American concept, Mirza pointed out. In a survey of seniors in downtown Toronto, the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly found that Cantonese and Mandarin speakers who had been living in the city for more than 65 years had no intention of moving. "They expect the physical and social environment to accommodate their needs as they age," Mirza said. Often, for immigrant families living in multigenerational homes, "there is no future 'next' place," he said. "This the place."

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