January 25, 2010

CANADA: How to make Hamilton age friendly

. HAMILTON, Ontario / The Hamilton Spectator / January 25, 2010 How to make Hamilton age friendly Council on aging releases report, suggests affordable dental care, greater respect for elderly Mary K. Nolan, The Hamilton Spectator The irony isn't lost on Debbie Christie. During 2009, as her Hamilton Council on Aging was examining the city's "age-friendliness," bulldozers demolished two of the most age-friendly places in town. The Mountain Plaza Mall and the Centre Mall -- where seniors routinely congregated for coffee, walked in climate-controlled comfort and enjoyed one-stop shopping -- were converted to outdoor, car-centric, big-box plazas. Christie, the council's executive director, says that kind of regressive development, where the needs of the community's older members are overlooked, is exactly why the council undertook its year-long Age-Friendly Hamilton project. The results of the study were to be released this morning at St. Peter's Hospital. A total of 92 recommendations on ways to make Hamilton easier for the aging came out of the brief but meaty 24-page report. Some are as straightforward as conducting an accessibility inventory of parks and trails or extending free bus passes to riders under the current eligibility age of 80 Others, such as affordable dental care or greater respect for the older generation, are more problematic because they require significant funding or seismic shifts in society's attitudes toward its elder members. But Christie is undaunted. "I'm excited," she says. "I think it is a topic whose time has come. Our slogan is Hamilton: A City for ALL Ages because an age-friendly Hamilton is not just a seniors' issue but an issue for all. And that's what excites me about it." Hamilton is not the only Ontario city to assess its suitability for seniors, but it was the first in the province to do so under standards set in 2007 by the World Health Organization, which defines an age-friendly city as "an inclusive and accessible urban environment that promotes active aging." As populations age worldwide, the issue becomes more than a matter of helping little old ladies across the street. The WHO reports that in 2000, the global population of people 60 and older was 600 million. By 2025, there will be 1.2 billion and by 2050 almost 2 billion. In Hamilton, according to census figures, 14.3 per cent of the population in 2001 was 65 or older. Five years later, that age group accounted for 14.9 per cent of the population. It's estimated that older persons will make up more than 20 per cent of the city's population by 2021. With those projections in mind, the council launched the study using eight features identified by the WHO to measure Hamilton's age-friendliness: Outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; and community support and health services. Over the year, the council held 15 focus groups with 130 people, 60 and older, from 11 of the 15 wards; two focus groups of 16 service providers; one with five caregivers; and a forum of 150 people in November to review the findings and make recommendations. "We are hoping that most of the 92 recommendations are doable over time," says Christie. "This is a 10-year process. But I'd say at least half are doable in the short term." For example, Christie says, it was suggested that a customer service manual be developed to help retailers and service suppliers understand the unique needs of their elderly clients and customers. Another recommendation was to improve sidewalk maintenance so that the city is more walkable and the risk of falls is reduced. "Over the next year, we'll be looking at two or three features and concentrating on improving those features," says Christie. "One for sure will be transportation and what we can do to make sure we're at the right tables ... the light rail table, the DARTS table." Christie says that within 10 years, the council would like to see considerations for the elderly entrenched in policy and law, just as they are now for the disabled. It's an investment for the future, she says, and for the entire community. An age-friendly community benefits people of all ages, the report states. Safe neighbourhoods are safe for everybody, not just the elderly. All families benefit when they know their older relatives have the necessary services and supports. Barrier-free spaces improve mobility for all citizens, young, old and with disabilities. "I think there's a lot of room for improvement," she says. "But it's not that bad. Most seniors say they enjoy living in Hamilton and they find a lot of benefits to it." [rc] Information on the council on aging can be found at coahamilton.ca Mary K. Nolan E-Mail: mnolan@thespec.com © Copyright 2007 Metroland Media Group Ltd.