Creating an Age-Friendly Community


AgingThe most interesting and inspiring seminar I attended during the recent AMO (Association of Municipalities of Ontario) convention was “Synergies for Senior Friendly Communities.” It was about creating “age-friendly communities,” not simply for seniors, but heavily tilted in their direction.*

Speakers included Mario Sergio, Minister responsible for seniors (Ontario Seniors’ Secretariat); Mayor Debbie Amaroso, of Sault Ste. Marie, Mayor Jim Watson, of Ottawa; and Dr. John Lewis, associate professor of planning for the University of Waterloo. I also benefitted by sitting beside Mayor Rick Hamilton, of Elliot Lake, who gave me commentary from his town’s perspective on many of the issues raised, as well as speaking to me afterwards about specific issues I questioned.

The session provided a lot of ideas and processes that I believe we can bring to Collingwood. We do many things right, here, and we have a generally senior-friendly community, but the seminar told me we can – and should – do more. And it talked about the need to formalize our approach, strategize and create a long-range plan. We can’t do this ad hoc.

Provided for all participants were two publications: “Finding the Right Fit: Age-Friendly Community Planning,” a 112-page manual produced by the Province’s Seniors’ Secretariat, and the City of Ottawa’s 40-page “Older Adult Plan, 2012-2014.” Both are invaluable guides for the process. The Secretariat also publishes “A Guide to Programs and Services for Seniors in Ontario.” All of these are available in PDF format, online.

AFC is a designation, not simply a philosophy or policy behind planning and recreational activity programming. You have to apply for the designation, perform several steps, and obtain your certificate from the World Health Organization (WHO). As the WHO site notes,

The WHO Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities (GNAFCC) was established to foster the exchange of experience and mutual learning between cities and communities worldwide. Any city or community that is committed to creating inclusive and accessible urban environments to benefit their ageing populations is welcome to join.

Cities and communities in the Network are of different sizes and are located in different parts of the world. Their efforts to become more age-friendly take place within very diverse cultural and socio-economic contexts. What all members of the Network do have in common is the desire and commitment to create physical and social urban environments that promote healthy and active ageing and a good quality of life for their older residents.

There’s nothing onerous in the process, but it has to be followed closely to avoid being rejected. The WHO recommends a 1-2 year planning process of four steps:

  1. Establishment of mechanisms to involve older people throughout the Age-friendly City cycle.
  2. A baseline assessment of the age-friendliness of the city.
  3. Development of a 3-year city wide plan of action based on assessment findings.
  4. Identification of indicators to monitor progress.

This should be followed by an implementation program in years 3 to 5. WHO notes:

On completion of stage 1, and no later than two years after joining the Network, cities will submit their action plan to WHO for review and endorsement. Upon endorsement by WHO, cities will then have a three-year period of implementation.

Following this, there’s an evaluation process at the end of year 5.

At the end of the first period of implementation, cities will be required to submit a progress report to WHO outlining progress against indicators developed in stage 1.

Nothing we can’t do here. In fact, I think we could become a shining example for AFCs in Southern Ontario.

The provincial manual opens with these words:

The oldest members of the baby boomer generation in North America and Europe turned 65 in 2011. By the year 2036, our province’s older adult population will more than double to 4.1 million. This major change affects every jurisdiction in Canada and Ontario.

As a Boomer (the generation born between 1946 and 1965, according to StatsCan), I’ve been watching the magic number of 65 roll steadily closer each year. I have a few years left – and I don’t feel anything close to old, despite my semi-retirement (I’m still listening to and playing the music I heard in my teens and early 20s).** But I am all too well aware of the changes age brings on body, mind and reflexes. I can only hope these changes are offset by an increase in wisdom.
The Boomer expansion

Today’s seniors are often more active than any previous generation. As this Edmonton Sun story notes, we’re fitter and living longer:

Few know the impacts the modern running and fitness movement has had on an aging baby boomer population like John Stanton. For starters, the Alberta-born Stanton founded the Running Room in Edmonton in 1984 and has watched it grow to more than 100 stores nationally since. Added to that, he’s a baby boomer himself.

“Generally the 50- or 60-year-old today is 40- or 50-year-old of 10 or 15 years ago,” said Stanton.

“I think the health and wellness and awareness and diet and exercise of the baby boomer, we’ve made some significant strides.”

You can say “60 is the new 50” or “90 is the new 70” all you want, but aging is inexorable. We need to plan for an aging majority, in all aspects of our municipal policies and programs.

Collingwood already has a high percentage of “older adults” in its demographics. The 2006 census showed 41.27% of the population was over 50, and 20.57% was over 65. Almost 10% was over 75. Add onto that figure the statistic that 1.5 million Ontarians has a disability – one in seven.

StatsCan has not yet released the latest census household numbers, but has released general data from 2011. According to this chart, 13.8% of the Canadian population is 66 and older (almost one in seven). Canadians 46 and older make up 42.4%. ***

Developing communities that are more responsive to and more proactive about aging populations is crucial, but complicated. As the provincial guide notes, Ontarians are living longer, healthier lives than ever before, and generally aging adults want to be more active, more engaged, more involved than previous generations. Issues of health care, accessibility, transportation, social and public services, housing design, park and recreational facility design all have to be considered in a long-range strategy.

And a huge weight of that planning falls on the shoulders of local government.

The WHO identifies eight key areas for consideration:

  • Outdoor spaces and public buildings;
  • Transportation;
  • Housing;
  • Social Participation;
  • Respect and Social Inclusion;
  • Civic Participation and Employment;
  • Communication and Information;
  • Community Support and Health Services.

The first step, according to the province and the WHO, is to form a steering committee. This group will help create the guiding principles and establish the community partnerships (with groups, organizations, developers, etc.). Then they gather information about community needs, wants and existing services – through workshops, interviews with staff, visits to facilities and other communities, etc. A needs assessment list is created and with staff help a strategic plan is created with budgetary impacts assigned.

Ottawa created a “seniors’ roundtable” group with full staff and council support:

The Community and Social Services Department will act as the Roundtable’s Secretariat and provide support to the Roundtable (i.e. provide OAP status updates, organize meetings, prepare meeting materials, bilingual minutes, etc).

Representatives from key City departments (e.g. Ottawa Public Health; Ottawa Public Library; Public Works; Community and Social Services Department; Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services; Transit Services; Emergency and Protective Services; Service Ottawa, Corporate Communications) may also be asked to attend meetings to provide updates and information in support of the Roundtable, as required.

It’s important to include the community throughout these stages, especially the people most affected by the issues – the older adults. As the seminar pointed out, seniors are widely varied, not a homogeneous group, and have different levels of needs, income, and interests. What’s important is to engage as many of them as possible, not just a small group.

The results of Ottawa’s consultation process are here. You can see how comprehensive the study was, and how many issues (many of them interlinked) were raised. (Ottawa’s demographic picture is in this document – in 2006, 12% of the population was 65 or older, which was expected to more than double by 2031).

…poor health, diminishing income and isolation were revealed to be elements that tested the limits of Ottawa’s age-friendliness. Older adults stressed the importance of accessible services and places to look after their health and well-being, and wanted easier ways to get information on what relevant programs and services were available. Furthermore, a number of participants stressed the need for more initiatives aimed at reducing social isolation.

Collingwood could host a major “seniors’ summit” to cover it all at once, or have several smaller issue-oriented workshops. We could conduct roving sessions in retirement homes and residences, at the library and town hall.

Once all of this has been done, an action plan is drafted, including an implementation plan with measurable evaluation milestones. Being able to measure and evaluate the success is critical to the process. Of course, some evaluations will be subjective, but others will be objective – such as the accessibility level of municipal facilities and parks.

Elliot Lake took a very proactive approach. As Mayor Hamilton told me, a lot of the seminar was about “aging in place” while his town was aggressive in attracting seniors to move there – aging in another place. That can only work by making your community a very attractive, welcoming, senior-friendly place. Elliot Lake recently opened its first “seniors’ playground” – a park with exercise equipment for seniors, not children.

Elliot Lake has become one of the most popular retirement communities in the province due to its modern infrastructure, affordable housing, the pristine natural environment that surrounds the community and the quality of life that people experience while living in the community.
As the retired population in Elliot Lake has grown, so have the services and activities that are geared to our older adult population.

For example, rec facilities need to have adult-only programming time slots, where seniors can enjoy the facilities without having to deal with children (an example of this will be the adult-only swim times for the new Centennial Pool). We need to think about providing times and places for older adults. A 2001 guide published by the federal government outlines the benefits of exercise and socializing for seniors, as well as having several web pages of advice and information.

Should we pursue this, our steering committee, and maybe some staff and council members, should do probably take a road trip to Elliot Lake to explore what they have done, and see what we can replicate in our own community.

We should also consider several things other municipalities have done. For example, publishing an “older adult” recreation guide once or twice a year; having a separate website for seniors’ issues, having a contact or administration person to handle seniors’ issues, questions and concerns. Sault Ste Marie has a separate department of Seniors’ Services. We need to collect and collate all these guides to help us design our own programs.

Creating an age-friendly community is not simply a social project. It makes good business sense. With more people retiring out of the city, we can make ourselves a highly attractive community by providing more services and support for aging adults. We can involve developers, healthcare providers, business owners and encourage them to offer the services that will generate more business for them. The WHO says,

In 2008, for the first time in history, the majority of the world’s population lived in cities. Urban populations will continue to grow in the future. It is estimated that around 3 out of every 5 people will live in an urban area by 2030.

At the same time, as cities around the world are growing, their residents are growing older. The proportion of the global population aged 60 will double from 11% in 2006 to 22% by 2050.

Making cities and communities age-friendly is one of the most effective local policy approaches for responding to demographic ageing. The physical and social environments are key determinants of whether people can remain healthy, independent and autonomous long into their old age.

Older persons play a crucial role in their communities – they engage in paid or volunteering work, transmit experience and knowledge, and help their families with caring responsibilities. These contributions can only be ensured if they enjoy good health and if societies address their needs.

One of the things Mayor Watson spoke about is how seniors need (want) to walk to be able to shop, socialize, and exercise. But seniors need more places to rest. So Ottawa added more benches and seating places to its streets, to accommodate their seniors. It’s a small expense, but it had to be planned, budgeted for and implemented. It’s this sort of thing, something small but important, the details of everyday life that we need to plan for.

We can’t leave it to staff – we need the whole community to contribute.

These are just some of the ideas and goals I’ve been pondering since my AMO trip. I hope to get this initiative going here n Collingwood this fall, so we can get our community designated as an AFC- something we can market and promote. The good news is that the Secretariat provides seed money to get the process started, so it may not cost local taxpayers anything at this point. All we need to do is apply.

* This year’s conference had many interesting seminars and speakers. My favourite keynote speaker was Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who spoke about the space program, his experiences, and about the power of imagination – to dream of becoming an astronaut. Today it’s much easier than it was when I was a child, standing in my backyard in October, 1957, watching the dim light of Sputnik I speed across the sky.

** Music of the 60s is still my favourite, but these days I listen to a much wider range of music, from World to jazz to blues to opera to trance to Latin to folk and more. What I don’t listen to much these days is the derivative pap that sells itself as modern pop. It’s not merely nostalgia: there’s a lot of good music out there, but sadly not much of it gets played on the local airwaves.

*** The definition of what constitutes a “baby boomer” s open to debate. As Wikipedia notes, the start and end of the time varies considerably among authors and analysts:

In Ontario, Canada, one attempt to define the boom came from David Foot, author of Boom, Bust and Echo: Profiting from the Demographic Shift in the 21st century, published in 1997 and 2000. He defines a Canadian boomer as someone born from 1947 to 1966, the years that more than 400,000 babies were born. However, he acknowledges that is a demographic definition, and that culturally it may not be as clear-cut.
Doug Owram argues that the Canadian boom took place from 1943 to 1960, but that culturally boomers (everywhere) were born between the late war years and about 1955 or 1956. He notes that those born in the years before the actual boom were often the most influential people among boomers; for example, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones and writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who were considerably older than the boomer generation. Those born in the 1960s might feel disconnected from the cultural identifiers of the earlier boomers.
Bernard Salt places the Australian baby boom between 1943 and 1960.
Another definition for the Baby Boom is the decade after the Second World War, that is 1946 to 1955. This date range in the US correlates neatly with the strongest cultural identifiers of the boomer generation, i.e., the involvement of the US in the Vietnam War and the draft. In 1973 the US both ended its draft and moved to an all volunteer army and ended its military activity in Vietnam. Of course, males born in 1953-1955 could not have foreseen the end of the draft or the war and “came of age” fully internalizing those events.

This Toronto Star article explains some of the differences between American and Canadian baby booms. The HuffPost has several articles on baby boomers, too.

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Ian Chadwick
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One comment

  1. The definition from WHO’s brochure:

    What is an Age-friendly city?
    An Age-friendly city is an inclusive and accessible urban environment that promotes active ageing.

    Advantages of membership
    • Connection to a global network of ageing and civil society experts.
    • Access to key information about the programme: latest news, best practices, events, results, challenges and new initiatives through the Age Friendly Cities Community of Practice (
    • Provision of technical guidance and training throughout the AFC implementation process.
    • Opportunities for partnerships with other cities.

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