Part one in a three-part series on how Canadian communities are coping with an aging population.
When Norm Mann left Elliot Lake, Ont. as a university student in the early 1990s, he never thought he’d return.
The last mine in the remote, resource-fueled community was barely hanging on and it looked like the town would wither away with it.
“I didn’t think I have the opportunity to come back,” said Mann, who was a business major.
But that all changed by the time he finished his degree, as seniors started flocking to the town, giving it new purpose.
As they shut down, the mining companies left behind 1,500 housing units. Those dwellings became Elliot Lake Retirement Living and the catalyst to transform the mining town into a retirement town.
“We’ve replaced a one industry town with a one industry town,” said Mann.
It was a transformation that wooed Mann, now a town councillor, back to start a career at a nursing home.
In recruiting seniors, Elliot Lake invited a reality facing a growing number of Canadian communities – a rapidly aging population.
It’s a reality that brings national challenges when it comes to retirement income, health care and housing, but it will also play out at the community level, where finding solutions will be a unique journey.
An investigation by Global News has found that the search for solutions will be more pressing for some communities, which are home to a disproportionately high number of seniors.
Using population data and the number of Old Age Security recipients in each postal code, Global News has mapped out where Canada’s seniors currently reside.
The data paints a portrait of a rapidly aging population in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, with the exception of urban centres and northern communities. There are pockets of retirement rich communities across Western Canada as well, but the density of the greying population seems to be tempered by an abundance of young people.
There’s one dominant force behind the pattern, according to Bill Reimer, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Concordia University.
“We’ve had for the longest time a policy that says people move to the jobs, the jobs don’t move to the people,” he said.
And in Canada’s commodity-driven economy, resource-rich western provinces are proving to be an attraction for younger people looking for jobs and money.
Data from the 2011 census shows, when excluding Ontario, population in Canada’s western provinces outnumbered the east. The next release scheduled for May will reveal the age of those migrating west.
At the same time, seniors are staying where they lived, worked and built deep connections. Some who do want to move, simply can’t afford to because the equity in their homes won’t go as far in cities or booming areas, according to Reimer.
And then you have places like Elliot Lake, which have attracted seniors with affordable housing, a wilderness playground and senior-oriented services.
Beating the boom
While no postal code will escape the reality of an aging population, places like Elliot Lake are ahead of the curve.
“We have a very good cross-section of services for seniors in the community and that’s obviously something that you may not have available in other small communities,” Mann said.
The town of 11,500 has six pharmacies and a few specialty stores that sell equipment for seniors. It has a seniors’ bus, painted curbs for increased safety and a sidewalk grinder that smoothes walkways to help prevent falls.
There’s also a relatively wide range of housing options for seniors from affordable homes to assisted living to nursing homes. Not to mention recreation activities from hiking to golfing to aquafit.
Another example of community ingenuity comes from Peterborough, Ont., a city of 78,000 with a simultaneous overabundance of seniors and students.
Peterborough is home to Trent University and Sir Sandford Fleming College, and it’s an asset the community is using to its advantage.
When Fleming built a new campus five years ago, it included a 200-bed nursing home in the plan. Now students from both schools help staff the facility, while learning professions like nursing, culinary arts, and emergency response.
“They are crucial because our residents love having extra attention and people to talk to,” said Joni Wilson, the director of resident care at the home called St. Joseph’s. “The students I think love coming here too. We get more and more each year that want to come. You never had that in the past.”
The partnership is also helping to keep specialized knowledge in the community. St. Joseph’s recently hired five registered nurses from the school.
Demographer David Foot wrote a book outlining how to profit from Canada’s changing population called Boom, Bust & Echo. He said any city can gradually integrate an aging community into planning.
Local leaders can think about making a hockey rink into a curling arena, or heating a pool for aquafit instead of competitive swimming, Foot suggests. Another idea is to make traffic lights longer to allow slow-moving seniors enough time to cross or enlarge the font on street signs.
“Community governments are closer to the population, so they can respond quicker and easier,” he said.
Health care, attracting young families a challenge
Even cities with a plan like Elliot Lake will have to face some hard truths about an aging population.
“When the first group moved up in the early 90s they were healthy and as they continued to age their demands on health care increased,” Mann said. “We’re still not really at the big bubble yet.”
It’s also an ongoing challenge to recruit young professionals, including doctors, to the one-industry town, said Mann.
“We’ve probably missed the opportunities of some professionals coming to town because we haven’t had a job for their partner or spouse,” he says.
Towns at risk of dying off
Surviving a tidal wave of seniors is not assured for all communities. Some are at risk of literally dying off with their populations.
“I have no doubt that some will become ghost towns,” said Reimer. “That’s a long tradition in Canada.”
Reimer said that’s not a bad thing, if done right – something that Canada hasn’t quite figured out yet.
“Hopefully we can do it in a way that is personal because you are not just moving people, you are destroying a network,” Reimer said.
In the end, Reimer said survival depends on community members working together to build a place so attractive people will want to sustain it regardless of the challenges, demographic or economic, they face.
And in the case of Elliot Lake, there at least one citizen committed to doing just that.
“I want to see the community continue to prosper,” Mann said. “We’ve turned the corner once and I don’t want to start over.”