Age-friendly Communities

By Tessa Graham

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The World Health Organization is leading a global project to develop a tool that will assist cities to become more senior friendly as the population in most countries ages significantly. Canada has taken the lead in this project and, at the provincial level, British Columbia is one of three provinces, along with Manitoba and Nova Scotia, who were asked by the federal government to participate. Even more exciting, the municipality of Saanich was chosen through a call to all local governments with a population over 10,000, to be the pilot site for British Columbia. Saanich with a population of 113,000 and a large seniors population fit the bill.

Sidewalks with no cracks, bank doors light enough for one person to open, restaurant bathroom stalls wide enough to accommodate a walker, businesses which actively recruit older adults as employees and recreation programs that mix the old and young are just some examples of what makes an age-friendly community.

Such a community prevents and corrects the barriers that people increasingly encounter as they grow older. In an age-friendly community, policies, services and structures related to the physical and social environment are designed to support and enable older people to live in security, enjoy good health and participate fully in society.

Saanich is a large suburban community, which has worked on a number of initiatives. Whether it's their Adaptable Housing Bylaw, Active Aging Strategy, Senior-Friendly Pilot Project in the Shelbourne Corridor, or Living Actively in Your Community program, the municipality understands seniors are valuable to community life.

"There is no doubt Saanich is changing," says Councillor Judy Brownoff. "Having had many conversations with our maturing population, it is evident that they consider Saanich a good place to age, but they do face some challenges in their day-to-day life."

"There is an African saying: 'It takes the whole village to raise a child,'" says Brownoff, "and I believe it takes a whole community, from municipal government, senior government, businesses and neighbours to help ensure we are age friendly now and in the future."

In collaboration with the UVIC Centre on Aging and the Ministry of Health, focus groups with seniors, caregivers, businesses, municipal leaders and non-profit organizations discussed what makes an age-friendly city. Issues covered included outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, respect and social inclusion, social participation, communication and information, civic participation, employment, community support and health services.

The focus groups finished in December and the results will be collated over the spring and added to the results of the other 27 participating cities around the world. Other cities include Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, London, Geneva, Istanbul, Moscow, New Delhi, Tokyo and Melbourne. Saanich, Vancouver Island and British Columbia are truly part of a global community.

The Guide for Age-Friendly Cities will be released around the world on October 1, 2007, International Day of Older Persons.

Given this project focuses exclusively on cities, Canada is also leading a parallel project that specifically examines rural and remote communities. Similar to the city project, a call went out to all local governments with populations less than 2,500 to seek their participation in the rural and remote age-friendly community project. Two small communities chosen as pilot sites were Lumby and Alert Bay, B.C.

"We are very pleased to partner and participate in the Age-Friendly Rural and Remote Communities Initiative," says Mayor of Lumby, Eric Foster. "It is our belief that an age-friendly and healthy community consists of all residents and ages being considered in community decisions, and with an ever-aging society, it would be our objective that through this initiative our community will be in a position to have our residents age in place with all necessary services available, and that the results of this initiative will be of assistance to other communities in achieving their objectives."

Focus groups in these two communities will begin in the spring and include seniors, caregivers, local businesses and organizations as well as municipal employees and other community leaders.

"The Village of Alert Bay, in partnership with our neighbours, the Namgis First Nation, is extremely pleased to be chosen to take part in the Age-Friendly Rural and Remote Communities Initiative," says Mayor John Rowell. "We already have a reputation of being a friendly community, as is evident by the comments of many of our visitors. After this project, we look forward to being known as especially age-friendly. As a senior myself, I look forward to the results of this study which will give us a road map to be followed in achieving this objective, and will help other communities to serve the needs of their aging citizens."

The guide for age-friendly rural and remote communities should be completed in the fall. All communities in British Columbia will then have a guide to assist local planners on how to design and adapt their environments with seniors' needs and capacities in mind. Making cities and smaller communities age friendly is one of the most effective policy approaches to respond to demographic aging.

Tessa Graham is the Executive Director for Healthy Children, Women and Seniors at the Ministry of Health. She is the project leader for both age-friendly projects.

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