Designing Toronto for the Young at Heart
A thriving city includes the wisdom and energy of city elders
What kind of city would you want to grow old in?
One of the organizations asking is Care Watch, a nonprofit advocating for quality of life for seniors that recently sent all mayoral candidates a questionnaire on the topic. And last election one of the very few mayoral debates that was held was organized by Zoomer Radio and CARP (Canadian Association for Retired Persons). Older adults are a strong political force in this city, courted by politicians of all stripes. So it is surprising that so many of our city policies exclude their full participation, leaving Torontonians more and more left out as they age.
It doesn’t need to be that way. Traditional cultures have great respect for the elders in their communities, and it’s time we showed respect in the way we run our city too.
If we want older adults to remain safe, independent and productive in their communities, they have to have both meaningful input into design of their local environments, and the agency to make decisions on what matters to them. Without that, everyone from city planners to developers can unthinkingly create environments that are hostile to people with the financial constraints and mobility issues that come with age. I want to know where people’s voices are being heard, and where they aren’t, so conversations with seniors who work with others on quality of life in aging communities, like Denise Smith in one of my podcasts the last campaign, is essential to finding out where the problems are. Not every issue has an easy solution, but some do. Something as simple as placing a driveway differently can reduce noise and conflict with pedestrians, while low cost measures like including street benches and other resting places make it easier for older adults to keep walking around their communities.
If we want to strengthen public health for an aging population, we need to make sure the key determinants of health are tended to in our city. These include the availability of fresh food, ample opportunity for exercise, social connections, and an accessible transportation network that allows people to travel where they need to go, including to their health care providers. There are low cost ways to allow such things to happen. We can allow fresh food to proliferate by removing zoning restrictions and permit fees for farmers markets and food vendors, and by making more public space available for gardens. We can make sure our parks and public places are designed with local seniors so they are accessible. We can encourage community programming that brings people together. And we can make sure we never again lock down or isolate seniors from their families and friends the way we did in 2020 and 2021.
The city also needs to work with all those who are delivering home care and support to older adults. We can listen to local agencies to find out what barriers city government is putting in that prevents them from doing their jobs. We can remove the barrier of transit fares, while providing high quality and reliable public transit, to makes it easy for both older adults and the caregivers who come to their homes.
What about housing? There are long wait lists for supportive housing units in city housing, and it can be difficult, and pricey, to get into or out of the existing so-called “Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities”. There is no single solution to an issue as big as housing for the hundreds of thousands of seniors in our city. The city must take a careful look at its budget to make sure that spending on housing goes where it will do the most good. And it needs to stop trying to solve the problem on its own. By removing the zoning and housing restrictions that prevent small-scale development and innovative options, we will be able to allow private, non profit and co-op housing providers to quickly meet many of the housing needs we have today.
Finally, we need to examine how we respect the caregivers. Currently those working in hospitals and long-term care homes are often paid more than those working in people’s homes. Institutionalizing ourselves as we age is not an option that I desire for myself or anyone I love. So why should we have an economic system that pays more for institutional supports than local ones? Health care, how we pay for it, and who we pay, is a provincial issue, but the city can take a leadership role by advocating to the province for a city where aging in place is supported, not discouraged, by government policies.
For some reason, in Toronto we silo issues like accessibility as if they are frills. We ignore the isolation and institutionalization that can be a feature of modern life for many older adults. We need to stop treating these issues as if they only affect other people. Soon enough we will all be faced with the realities that come with age, and creating a city for all ages will not just reduce our struggles later, it’ll make life better for us all today.
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