People and programs 06-19-2018

How will the choices I make now affect my health and well-being as I age? What's the best way to support our parents and loved ones to lead fulfilling lives as they get older? How can we reduce the incidence of poverty and isolation among seniors – and ensure we won't struggle with those issues when we're older?

These are questions we ask ourselves while getting ready for work, talking with loved ones, or lying awake at night. The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, a twenty-year study following 50,000 Canadians between the ages of 45 and 85, is looking for answers. Its goal is to explore the determinants of healthy aging and how Canadians can live out their golden years in as healthy a way as possible. Recently, they released a report with early data and results.

And it’s not a moment too soon. In 2016, for the first time, seniors outnumbered children, and by 2031, it’s expected that one in four Canadians will be 65 or older. This phenomenon will require a combination of societal responses, in everything from how we design accessible communities, to how we address increased costs to our health care system, estimated at an additional $2 billion per year.

Combating social isolation and chronic conditions
One of the most pressing questions facing us as a society is how to deal with social isolation and chronic conditions among seniors, especially those who live alone, or on low incomes.

Loneliness is a growing concern as people age, with one in six Canadian seniors reporting feelings of isolation and a full 9.2 per cent of seniors never or rarely eating with others. Even with income supports like Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, many seniors still live on a fixed income, and are at increased risk of social isolation. As people age, they're also more likely to suffer from certain chronic conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. These conditions are exacerbated by poverty, and they have damaging impacts on people's health, well-being, and quality of life.

As the cost of living in many urban centres skyrockets, the income supports that have pulled thousands  of seniors out of poverty are increasingly not making the cut, as evidence by the growth in the number of low-income seniors, which rose from from 12 per cent in 2005 to 14.5 per cent in 2015.

Creating community solutions
While our aging population poses significant challenges, it also presents significant opportunities. Younger seniors, for example, are more active than ever, some finding second careers and engaging in “unretirement”. Almost one in five seniors worked at some point in 2015, double the rate from 1995.

So what can we do to combat loneliness and isolation, while taking advantage of the possibilities presented by an increasingly active older population?

A recent Maytree report argued for community-based solutions. It references provincial strategies like SHIFT: Nova Scotia’s Action Plan for an Aging Population. It has as a goal to keep seniors engaged and active in their communities by, among other things, involving more seniors in volunteer work and increasing access to programs that promote healthy living.

As people age, it’s vital that they continue to feel they are contributing positively to their communities, and to society as a whole. Community spaces can cultivate a spirit of volunteerism and provide opportunities for seniors to put their lived experience to good use.

Connecting through food
We see the impact of community programs in our Community Food Centres. In 2017, 27 per cent of program participants at our partner Community Food Centres were 65 or older – it's a number that has been growing in recent years. Thirty-eight per cent of these seniors not only relied on programs for support, they also contributed as volunteers. 

Because people 65 and older form a significant proportion of participants, many Community Food Centres offer senior-specific programs. At the Local Community Food Centre in Stratford, Ontario, a support group for women whose partners have passed away has formed at the Seniors’ Lunch. These women meet every Wednesday to eat together and help each other through the stages of grief.

At the Regent Park Community Food Centre in Toronto, the weekly Seniors' Cooking Program overflows with kitchen culture and know-how – setting the scene for great exchanges of experience and recipes. The dumpling-making session, pictured below, was led by a group of Chinese women from the community, land asted four hours longer than expected, because no one wanted to leave! 

Accessible community-based programs can make a big difference in the lives of seniors. Eighty per cent of seniors at our partner Community Food Centres reported they'd made a new friend at their centre, and 93 per cent reported feeling like they belonged to a community. A further 81 per cent said they had made healthy changes to their diet.

We look forward to helping build a senior-friendly society where there are plenty of opportunities for seniors to foster meaningful relationships, share their knowledge, and actively contribute to healthy and inclusive communities.

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