Hamilton, Ontario is backing its promise to become “age-friendly” with real action on the streets and sidewalks, in spaces indoors and out, at bus shelters and in pools.
The city boasts a population of over 80,000 older adults (aged 65 and older) which equates to 16 per cent of its residents. Over the next 20 years, that number is expected to double.
The demographic shift is no longer on the horizon. It is on Hamilton's doorstep. The first swath of Baby Boomers is turning 70. It is easy to do the math – in ten years, they will be 80. To be sure the city’s rapidly growing population has what it needs to age healthy, actively and independently, the municipality is going through a serious rethink.
Hamilton is following the lead of the World Health Organization (WHO) to become a true “Age-Friendly City”. The United Nations agency built the checklist to guide municipalities interested in claiming the title in their own response plan for a growing senior population.
“In promoting healthy aging, WHO follows a life course approach,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s Director-General, to a crowd in Geneva on World Health Day a few years back. “Doing so lets us discover multiple critical points, throughout life, for preventive intervention…we need to respect older people as rich sources of wisdom and experience, as assets for society, not burdens, as new models for the ‘new normal’.”
With everything Hamilton is doing, they are quickly becoming a strong example of what this new normal can look like.
To the municipality, it starts with a different kind of blueprint – a plan to renew the urban landscape and shift the course of its programs and services. The vision for this new city includes: expanding access to bus stops and bus pass kiosks; widening sidewalks; making pedestrian crossings safer; improving lighting; retrofitting buildings to be more accessible; maintaining public washrooms at a higher level; re-drafting public information materials; making recreation more affordable; and, enriching the volunteering experience.
The plan also encourages programs to increase access to affordable housing for seniors and counter-promotes development sprawl, all in efforts to draw the aging population back into walkable neighbourhoods that are packed with convenient amenities.
According to Dr. Margaret Denton of the Hamilton Council on Aging, this multi-player approach will ultimately, “improve the health, well-being, safety and security of older adults in the city through their greater participation in community life.”
The Council works closely with the City in sketching the plan, bringing the voice of local seniors – 15 focus groups – and a collection of recommendations – 92 total – to the drafting table.
Hamilton’s plan has big potential – it can help keep seniors from multiple hospital visits and, consequently, save the health system money.
“Having plans like these in place will be a critical part in preparing Canada’s health care system to meet the needs of its aging population.” said Dr. Chris Simpson, President of the Canadian Medical Association. “I hope to see more cities across Canada following Hamilton’s lead.”
Hamilton’s rethink celebrates longevity and the quality of life every Canadian senior should aspire to attain, outside of hospitals, outside of long-term care institutions. By tweaking services, it shows respect for seniors’ wishes to age actively in their community, to enjoy life in safe spaces and to prosper at home.
Behind the plan is a belief that Hamilton is not alone in shaping the community It will take a complex but cohesive effort – teamwork from the bottom up along with top down – from all levels of government to properly respond to the demographic wave about to hit the country’s and cities’ resources.
For now and in the near future in Hamilton, each time a bus is lowered, a bench is installed, a sidewalk is cleared of snow – it is a sign of small but mighty steps taken by a city looking ahead to the reality of the changing demographic. It is not just a smarter city at work; it is a more compassionate city at play.