An Ottawa-based organization is working to make communities age friendly and intergenerational. SWOOS shares their ideas with Sheryl Bennett-Wilson
In response to Canada’s aging demographics, a local group is planning for the future. Senior Watch Old Ottawa South is (SWOOS) is looking five years ahead for geriatric primary care, home care, technology, in-home supports, and seniors’ housing, and how communities can be better prepared to deal with an aging population.
“What we’re trying to do is not new,” says SWOOS member Terrance Hunsley. “The World Health Organization (WHO) started a Global Network for Age-Friendly communities and cities in 2010. The WHO knew there were going to have to be changes world-wide to accommodate aging populations.”
By 2030, every baby boomer will be over the age of 65, Stats Canada states. In 2016, seniors over the age of 65 numbered more than children under 14 years of age. The over-80 group, the people who need the most support, are also the fastest-growing demographic.
Hunsley says that Ottawa communities are working to provide programs and support for healthy lifestyles and social inclusion. “But the pandemic revealed how ill-prepared our public service infrastructures really are,” he says. “We have serious and growing shortages of doctors, nurses, practical nurses, PSWs — the whole range of services required to support aging in the community.”
Provincial health spending appears to be increasing, says Hunsley, but on a per capita basis after inflation, it is decreasing, even though seniors require far more care per capita than younger people. “The province is also focusing any new programs on the underprivileged and under-served. For sure, those groups need extra help but looking ahead we can see two kinds of crisis emerging: One will be that middle-income seniors will be forced to purchase health services on the private market as service rationing takes place. Secondly, they will rely to a greater extent on informal care: family and friends. Many of these people are already overloaded and suffering,” he says.
The latest figures from the Canadian Institute for Health Information show 40 percent of informal caregivers in serious distress, and the percentage is growing fast. The members of SWOOS believe that making a community age-friendly requires active collaboration between the public systems and the community, says Hunsley. “That is where we are focusing our efforts and our innovations.”
It was personal for SWOOS member Carolyn Inch. “I had a grandmother, a mother and a mother-in-law who were in homes and it was not good,” says Inch. “It wasn’t a question of how much they paid, it’s just that having only old people in big institutions didn’t make for a happy environment, as far as I could see.” Inch says it’s important for aging adults and seniors to take control of their own health and keep their own wellness records in order to stay healthy longer and reduce the burden on the health care system. “I know it isn’t easy to access records sometimes, but it is getting easier to get that information, especially with the technology available.”
Inch recognizes it can prove a challenge for some seniors. SWOOS is participating in the development of applications that tech-savvy seniors can start using now in order to be comfortable with them in five or 10 years when they may need technological support to age in place, she says. She also says it’s important for the younger generations to understand the challenges of aging. “Look, as a young mother it never crossed my mind to think about aging,” says Inch. “I was too busy raising my children. Now I can see why we need that intergenerational connection. Yes, seniors are helping seniors, but they can offer so much to younger generations too.”
Her 30-year-old son, who is very involved in health care, sees it is broken, says Inch. He has suggested looking at other countries who are doing better. “We have to do better,” says Inch, “not just for our aging population but for the generations behind us.”
Age-friendly communities are usually intergenerational because of the community involvement they have in place. “I got involved with SWOOS because of the terrible walkability in the neighbourhood in the winter,” says Anna Cuylits. “The sidewalks weren’t properly cleared, and it made walking difficult not just for seniors, but for anyone with a mobility issue. Even moms with strollers would have a tough time.” Other age-friendly aspects include making sure bus stops stay clear in the winter and that there are enough of them.
Benches around the neighbourhood are a plus as well. “The whole community came out to support a bench next to the local public school,” says Cuylits. “And now we have other benches popping up.” Cuylits says community building is a great way to promote all generations participating. “This neighbourhood is well-known for its street parties,” she says. “It gets everyone out, you get to know your neighbours and it enhances visibility for older people in the community and creates that social connection.” Cuylits says that the local community centre is excellent for providing activities for seniors and getting younger generations involved as well.
Ultimately, says Hunsley, SWOOS aims to run pilot projects that would test innovations to decrease costs while increasing quality of life in primary care, home care, self-help technology and housing, with the community actively involved. Another goal is to increase the number of nurse practitioners in the community; a health hub to improve seniors’ independence; more options for communal and nonprofit independent living and home care; and community testing of new in-home technology, all supported by an age-friendly community.
SWOOS is also discussing with a developer to create communal space for seniors in new rental towers. “Communities should be allowed to purchase properties and make them livable and affordable,” says Hunsley.
Another idea would be to adopting a more progressive tax system. “Seniors do have a large share of the wealth in the country, and taxing that wealth is better than privatizing, which will be inequitable and unfair, Hunsley says. “A robust public system and active communities are the right combination.”
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