The Challenge of Growing Old in the Suburbs

| Planning for Myself or a Loved One

Senior couple taking walk in neighbourhood

How age-friendly is your community? Canada’s population is quickly getting older – seniors already outnumber children, and by the year 2041, one in four of us will be 65 or older. This has profound implications for society at large, including how we undertake urban planning.

Surveys and studies have found that the majority of Canadians want to age in place – that is, keep living independently in their own homes as they grow old, rather than move to an assisted-living facility or live with family members. The problem is, most older adults live in single-family detached homes in suburban areas, where housing options are limited and cars are the main mode of transportation.

“Most of us will outlive our ability to drive, so seniors living in car-dependent suburbs face a significant challenge,” wrote Glenn Miller, a senior associate with the Canadian Urban Institute, in an article for Rehab & Community Care in 2018.

When older adults can no longer drive, they are at risk of becoming isolated and unable to access the services they need. Think about your own neighbourhood – without a car, how accessible are places like grocery stores, medical clinics, community centres and other services?

Miller is also the author of No Place to Grow Old: How Canadian Suburbs Can Become Age Friendly, released by the Institute for Research on Public Policy in 2017. In that publication, he noted that although the need for age-friendly communities has been an ongoing concern since the 1980s, and more than 500 Canadian cities and towns have committed to becoming age-friendly, so far they have made only minor physical improvements (adding park benches and upgrading lighting and signage).

What’s really needed, Miller wrote, are changes to public policy and land-use planning that will ensure our built environment – “the neighbourhoods and transportation networks that define the shape and functions of our cities” – is compatible with the needs of an aging population.

One promising example is the Ontario government’s “Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe,” released in 2017, which encouraged cities to pursue age-friendly development as part of urban planning: “This will include a more appropriate range and mix of housing options, easier access to health care and other amenities, walkable built environments, and an age-friendly approach to community design that will meet the needs of people of all ages.” (In May 2019, the government released an update to the plan, titled “A Place to Grow,” as part of its More Homes, More Choice action plan.)

How home care services help fill the gap

Seniors’ housing is a complex issue, and although it’s starting to receive greater attention from policy-makers, public health departments, citizens and the media, we are a long way from achieving age-friendliness across the country.

In the meantime, seniors and their families often have to seek or create their own age-friendly living arrangements. For many Canadians, especially low-income seniors, this is a daunting challenge. Those who need long-term care often face lengthy waiting lists. In the meantime, they must depend on family caregivers – often a senior-aged spouse, or an adult son or daughter who has other family and work obligations.

For many Canadians, home care services – such as personal care, housekeeping, meal preparation and companionship – provide much-needed support and peace of mind. In many cases, home care makes it possible for seniors to continue aging in place, while providing a break for family caregivers. Learn more about home care.

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