August 17, 2011

CANADA: The good side of a greying city

HAMILTON, Ontario / The Hamilton Spectator / Opinion / August 16, 2011

By Dr. Margaret Denton, and Dr. Carolyn Rosenthal

The Hamilton Council on Aging writes on the opportunities that come with an aging population

The aging of the population, while seen by some as a “problem,” is really a triumph of our times — a triumph because public health initiatives, such as the elimination of many infectious diseases and decreases in infant mortality, have enabled the majority of children to reach adulthood and, in turn, the majority of adults to reach “old age.” We too easily forget how recent it was that families commonly faced deaths of infants and children, as well as young parents through maternal mortality and disease. Today, we expect death to wait until our family members and our friends reach their later years.

Not only does the aging of the population represent a triumph, it also presents a myriad of opportunities. While much is written about the challenges of an aging population such as the rising costs of health care, and concerns about retirement pensions and the cost of old age security, less attention is given to the opportunities an aging population provides.

Currently, there are more than 80,000 Hamiltonians aged 65 and over, around 15 per cent of our population. This number is expected to nearly double in the next two decades, so that by 2025, 21 per cent of our population will be aged 65 and over.

A city for all ages

With the first of the baby boom generation set to turn 65 this year, economists are concerned about future labour force and skill shortages. Yet many older adults continue their labour-force participation beyond age 65. Currently 17 per cent of those 65 to 74 are in the labour force, with 9 per cent working full-time. Nearly half of them have a post-secondary degree. To address future labour force shortages, Hamilton employers could provide incentives to encourage older adults to continue their labour force participation including more opportunities for part-time or part-year work. Or, employers could offer contract positions to their retirees. Further, there are opportunities for older workers to mentor younger workers in their field, thereby providing their experience and expertise to increase the skill levels of the younger generation.

Seniors are valuable resources to their community. They are more likely to vote than younger adults. Approximately one-quarter of those age 65 and over volunteer with an organization and their volunteer work ranges from membership on boards of directors, to providing direct service and care in the community. On average, they each contribute over 200 hours of volunteer work per year. As well, older adults volunteer more informally, providing assistance to family, friends and neighbours. Many organizations depend on volunteers to enhance the services they provide.

However, there are barriers to volunteering that need to be addressed if we are to encourage older Hamiltonians to contribute their time and expertise to making Hamilton a better place. For example, beyond time, there are financial costs to volunteering such as transportation costs or parking costs that some older adults may not be able to afford. Volunteer management and volunteer recognition need to be recognized as legitimate costs by granting agencies. We need to create volunteer opportunities that recognize and utilize volunteers’ expertise and skills. Further, we need to provide volunteer opportunities that may be time-limited or project-based to attract older Hamiltonians who may wish to volunteer on more time-limited bases.

Older adults are a valuable resource to their family and friends. At any one point in time, about 10 per cent of seniors provide care (primarily assistance with household tasks) to a spouse, a close friend or a neighbour. Further, many seniors provide care for their grandchildren while parents work or on evenings and weekends. Some grandparents are raising their grandchildren on their own. Others provide financial support, from assisting with down-payments on first homes, to contributing to grandchildren’s education funds to helping with unexpected expenses.

It should not be forgotten that seniors pay taxes and are consumers of products and services. In fact, they often have more disposable income than do the younger generations. There is a real opportunity for businesses to develop products and services that are accessible and attractive to seniors. These can range from travel opportunities, to clothing that is attractive and comfortable, to recreational and leisure activities that allow older adults to remain active and engaged even as they become subject to more limitations. Opportunities for older adults to continue their interests or develop new and challenging interests after retirement are badly needed.

As people grow older, they wish to remain in their own homes for as long as possible. Opportunities for service providers to develop or enhance services and businesses to develop products to enable older adults to age-in-place while maintaining their independence and autonomy are a real growth opportunity for the future of Hamilton.

The Hamilton Council on Aging is committed to encouraging Hamilton to become an age-friendly city. An age-friendly Hamilton would enable older people to continue to participate in society in a meaningful way. Let us not view the aging of our population as a burden but rather as an opportunity. The whole community benefits from the participation of older people in their families, in volunteer roles, and through their employment and civic engagement.

Dr. Margaret Denton and Dr. Carolyn Rosenthal are president and vice-president, respectively, of the Hamilton Council on Aging.

© Copyright Metroland 2011
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