Can the urban spaces handle legions of retiring boomers?
· illustration by Tucker Nichols
In The Children of Men (1992), novelist P. D. James created a dystopia tailor-made for the vanities of the baby boom generation. The setting is Britain in 2021, a quarter century after the birth of the world’s last child — a point of historical inflection she dubs Omega. Mankind, plagued by a global sterility epidemic, is destined to mope its way to extinction in an increasingly empty and forlorn landscape. Her Britain is populated by the morose middle-aged and a generation of young adults born in 1995, the final cohort of humans, whose callous nihilism may be James’s commentary on the monumental self-regard of the generation born between 1946 and 1964. Après nous, rien.
James’s grey vision offers some bracing clues about what awaits us a few decades hence. Demographers predict that by 2031 almost 25 percent of Canadians will be over sixty-five; many of those will be north of eighty, and the oldest boomers, the ones who screamed for the Beatles in the early ’60s, will be turning eighty-five. (The phenomenon is global: by 2050, an estimated 22 percent of the world’s population will be over sixty, and for the first time in history there will be more seniors than children.) This attenuation of lifespan is attributable to radical improvements in medical technology, public health, nutrition, and lifestyle — all good things. But in our cities, one person in four will be a senior — many spry and healthy, others just old. It will be a different world.
To some extent, that world already exists in rural Canada and the declining industrial towns of the north, which have been bleeding jobs and kids for years, and which are populated by elderly residents worrying about health care and seniors’ services. Larger places, such as Victoria, BC, and St. Catharines, Ontario, have positioned themselves as retirement hubs. Meanwhile, Ontario’s cottage country is remaking itself into a year-round luxury landscape dominated by active and optimistic sixtysomethings, a kind of Florida North.
Certainly, our aging society is on the political radar, with policy-makers actively considering the implications for Canada’s health care and pension systems. But a growing senior population also raises troubling questions about Canada’s urban areas. With the exception of the denser downtown cores, our spread-out cities are singularly unsuited to the reduced horizons of old age. The vast majority of seniors want to “age in place,” often in the homes where they raised their own families, or in smaller houses in those same neighbourhoods. More often than not, those dwellings are located in postwar suburbs that were designed around the car and for families with school-age children.
Ian Ferguson, a fifty-eight-year-old geriatric psychiatrist, has had a glimpse of the future of urban old age, having spent two decades making house calls for elderly people living in apartments in Scarborough, in Toronto’s east end. Many of his patients still drive, though some are unsteady or confused and shouldn’t be behind the wheel, and as a physician he is legally obliged to report them.
In fact, Scarborough is little different from other places, and the statistics are sobering. By 2028, there will be 2.5 million drivers over sixty-five in Ontario alone, and about 98,000 of them will have some kind of age-related dementia, according to a recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Many keep driving long after the onset of symptoms and are up to five times more likely to be involved in collisions, says Ferguson. There’s no standard, reliable test to determine driving competency, short of a road test. But the loss of a driver’s licence, especially in a low-density suburb, can be devastating.
Ferguson tells of a patient, an elderly man caring for his wife who suffered from Alzheimer’s. The couple lived in a cul-de-sac, and the man would drive his wife to a day program and do the shopping. Eventually, it became apparent to Ferguson that the husband could no longer drive safely. Transit wasn’t really an option: the bus stop, though just a few blocks away, wasn’t easily manageable, and the local plaza was even farther afield. “If he loses his licence, then, from his perspective, he’s immediately dependent on somebody.”
Gerda Kaegi, a retired professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University, points out that transportation isn’t just about utility; it’s also a human rights issue. Vigorous and peripatetic, Kaegi and her eighty-three-year-old husband reside in a downtown Toronto townhouse and embody, in many ways, the ideal of the well-located senior lifestyle. But she works with elder advocates in Peel, the sprawling suburban region west of Toronto, and she argues, “If you think of the variety of people who have to function with limited income and some mobility impairment, you are covering a huge proportion of the population that, by neglect, has been put on the margins of society.”
For some, the collision of demographics and development is an urgent problem. “We can’t continue to build communities that are just for one stage of the life cycle,” says Glenn Miller, director of education and research at the Canadian Urban Institute. Like many urban planners, he contends that North American cities must confront the inevitable mobility crisis, and do so sooner rather than later. In some downtown areas, higher-income empty-nesters trade in the family home for luxury condos on or near thriving retail strips and transit routes. But these seniors, at least for now, are atypical.
Of course, many seniors — even those who face daunting impediments, such as poverty and declining health — figure out how to make do, and there’s every reason to believe the baby boomers will elevate this kind of sunset determination to new levels. And cities do offer some help. Many large municipalities now offer paratransit and limited shuttle bus service or provide vouchers for wheelchair-accessible cabs. Public buildings have ramps. New sidewalks mostly come equipped with tapered curbs, and increasingly these quotidian ribbons of concrete serve as mini-roads for motorized wheelchairs.