In the depths of winter, most of us struggle to walk on snowy sidewalks, stay warm while waiting for the bus, and keep our footing on steep stairs.
But for older adults dealing with mobility or other health issues, getting around can be a challenge in any weather. And if the layout of your community makes it downright difficult to get around, you may well just stay in — skipping appointments and social engagements and missing out on exercise.
That can create major physical and mental-health problems for older adults, leading to increased health-care and other social costs. (Loneliness is a growing problem for seniors; men over the age of 80 have the highest suicide rate in the country.) And those costs will only rise: people 65 and older are the fastest-growing age group in Ontario. Seniors made up 16 per cent of Ontario’s population in 2016, but that number is expected to reach 25 per cent by 2041, when there will be a total of 4.6 million older adults in the province.
Having transit, streets, buildings, and public spaces that work for them can keep them healthier and happier longer — and communities across the province are starting to take notice.
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Viable transit options are key. “We know that many communities are car-dependent,” says Lawrence Loh, the associate medical officer of health for Peel Region. “As you get older and have vision changes or cognitive changes, those impact your ability to drive. So how do they get around?”
Suburban areas, in particular, often lack such options. “Many suburbs are built so you live in one place and work and access services in other places,” says Loh. Senior-friendly planning includes developing communities where people can live and also take care of many of their errands.
And when people are out and about, they should be able to get around easily and safely — that can mean introducing wider sidewalks, longer crossing-light times, and curb cuts (where the curb ramps down) in more locations and limiting so-called street furniture, such as mailboxes.
Navigating public space can be especially challenging for older adults with cognitive challenges, who make up a growing portion of the population. Signs with complex instructions are a problem, says John Lewis, an associate professor at the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo, as are reflective surfaces, such as shiny floors. Very clear landmarks can help them remember where they are. “Weird statues are good,” he says.
Green spaces contribute to general good health — for example, they improve air quality for people with chronic lung diseases. “We need more green space,” says Loh. “We can’t just expect everyone to thrive if they’re surrounded by tons and tons of concrete.”
And cities that plan for seniors should make sure that they can offer the right kind of housing, too. “Things like having a bedroom on the first floor,” says Dominic Ventresca, co-chair of the Age-Friendly Community Network.
Ideas such as these are increasingly influencing how municipalities and regions plan and build. In 2017, Peel Region amended its official plan, adding the requirement that all new projects be age-friendly. New developments, for example, must contain units that work for seniors in terms of their accessibility and proximity to transit. Loh says that projects such as the in-progress Hurontario LRT, which will run along one of Mississauga’s busiest streets and is planned for completion in 2022, are part of the move to make parts of Peel easier to get around in for residents of all ages.
In Niagara, the volunteer-run Age-Friendly Niagara Community Network, which launched in 2009, is encouraging municipalities in the region to make their built environments and services more accommodating. It has encouraged eight municipalities to set up their own age-friendly advisory committees, which gather community input and urge their councils to take seniors into account when making decisions.
In Welland, the committee advocated for improved walkways, park benches, and public washrooms along the Welland Canals Parkway Trail. And new road signs now use a larger font.
In the tiny town of Pelham, meanwhile, the committee’s consultations with the community led to the new arena being equipped with an indoor running and walking track. “They don’t have a mall, so people can’t do mall-walking there in the winter,” says Ventresca.
Such efforts are being bolstered by support from the province, which issued the Finding the Right Fit: Aging and Community Planning report in 2013. Funding for urban-planning initiatives that take aging into account is available through the Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility and Trillium Foundation and through federal-government initiatives, such as the New Horizons for Seniors Program.
Lewis does say, though, that seniors aren’t always aware of local improvements. “Communication is a big issue,” he says. “Once you get a grip on what needs to be done and you start to deliver it, you need to follow up with how you message it and get the word out.” That means using a wide range of digital and print media and making sure that communications reach newcomers to Canada, family members, and caregivers.
And adding more transit, accessible walkways, and clear signage benefits people of all ages. As Ventresca notes, parents use the indoor walking track in Pelham while their kids go to hockey practice, extra curb cuts at places like strip malls help those pushing baby strollers, and walkable neighbourhoods keep everyone healthier and more active. “What’s good for older adults is good for the entire community,” he says.