Aging in Canada
When we think of urban Canada – the imagination immediately jumps to the three largest cities – Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal – with bustling downtowns, skyscrapers, expensive housing and incredible diversity. We think of well-developed public transportation systems, park space, high densities of people, community services and program spaces, as well as busy commercial districts.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, while urban Canada only makes up 0.25% of the country’s landmass, 5.3 million people live in urban areas, including 800,000 people over 65. While the proportion of older adults to the general population (15%) is lower than suburban (17%) or rural areas (18%), urban areas are where the most ethnically heterogeneous seniors live, as well as those more likely to live in poverty. Housing affordability is a particularly stark challenge in expensive urban areas – especially for those living on fixed incomes (most older adults) and those without pensions or assets (like already owning a house). How can we create affordable housing, especially for senior populations, and create diversity in options – from apartments in established neighbourhoods to purpose-built multi-family intergenerational dwellings?
27% of older adults in urban areas live in neighbourhoods where neither English nor French is the predominant language (compared to 1% of rural Canada), and 30% live in immigrant majority neighbourhoods. Older adult immigrants are more likely to be living on low incomes, with less social supports, and higher risk of health issues. This raises questions about the suitability and access to culturally relevant services and programs, as well as other supports needed to age-in-community. What would an approach to a truly inclusive age-friendly city look like that is not one-size-fits-all?
In general, urban Canada tends to offer more services, amenities, and opportunities than rural and suburban areas, and they tend to be within a walkable distance. However, these purported benefits can be negated – like inaccessible and poorly maintained sidewalks, long wait times at healthcare services, exorbitant housing costs, and an overwhelming number of programs. That is why it is so important to consider neighbourhood-scale differences within cities, to understand the local contexts in which older adults live. Urban Canada is also more likely to have age-friendly planning as part of their municipal purview, however – we must ask if these types of large-scale policies are serving the diverse local needs of older adults living in different neighbourhoods within cities.
If you’d like to learn more about aging in urban Canada, check out the urban section of our book Aging People, Aging Places: Experiences, Opportunities, and Challenges of Growing Older in Canada. You can read an overview of the Urban Section (including Takeaways for Practice and Questions to Consider) here.
When we think of the suburban, we tend to think of single detached homes, big backyards, safe tree-lined streets for kids to play, big box stores, underused sidewalks, expansive parks, needing a car to get anywhere, available but unreliable public transportation, and long commutes. While suburbs are diverse places (not everyone lives with a white picket fence), they tend to be characterized by relying on a car for mobility, land use separation, a lack of accessible public transportation, and fewer social infrastructures. These characteristics can make it more difficult to age in place, especially when it is no longer feasible to drive.
The majority of Canadians live in these spread out, car-dependent communities, including the majority of older adults. For this book, we define a suburb as having a population density of 1000-4000 people per square kilometer with 60% of commutes (or more) are by car or 400-1000 people per square kilometer. We found over half of the Canadian population lives in suburbs (18 million), including 3 million people over 65 years old, which is more than older adults living in urban (800,000) and rural (1.5 million) Canada combined.
Suburban Canada is much more diverse in terms of immigration and socio-economic status when compared with rural areas, but less so than urban areas. 12% of older adults living in suburbs are living on low incomes and rely more frequently on walking and public transportation (both of which are less likely to be easy to use in suburbs). Suburban community design that favors the movement of cars structurally disadvantages seniors who are more likely to rely on walking, public transport, and other people to drive them. As a result, they often make the choice to not move as much as they would like to. Suburban seniors are also less likely to get as much physical activity, social interaction, and mental health benefits as seniors in urban areas.
Those with intersecting marginalized identities – women, people racialized as non-white, LGBTQ2S+ folks, people with disabilities, immigrants – are at a greater risk for social isolation and inaccessibility in suburban areas as well. This raises important questions about how to enable these more vulnerable older adults to age comfortably in community.
What is the future of suburbs and aging in Canada? There are opportunities to work with communities to retrofit with the design of built environments, as well as build social programming that brings people together and invest in transportation innovations like e-bikes. Those aging in diverse suburban environments are already creating new ways of thriving in their communities, and it represents an integral place to think creatively about enabling aging-in-community.
If you’d like to learn more about aging in suburban Canada, check out the suburban section of our book Aging People, Aging Places: Experiences, Opportunities, and Challenges of Growing Older in Canada. You can read an overview of the Suburban Section (including Takeaways for Practice and Questions to Consider) here.
Canada is enormous. A glance at any map will tell you that. After Russia, Canada is the largest country in the world by total area. However, Canada ranks only 40th in the world in population. And that population is largely clustered into a small number of metropolitan regions near the Canada-US border. As a result, the majority of Canada’s vast land area is sparsely populated. In short, most of Canada is rural.
If we consider “rural” to be defined as areas with a population density of less than 400 people per square kilometre, Statistics Canada data from 2019 tells us that approximately 8.5 million Canadians live in rural areas. 1.5 million of those are aged 65 years or over. Almost 150,000 of them are 85 years of age or over. Moreover, rural areas are aging rapidly. Canada’s rural population is older and aging faster than both its urban and suburban populations. The uneven age distribution is due to a number of factors. Two prominent reasons are that younger people tend to migrate towards urban areas for employment and many older Canadians move to rural areas for retirement.
What does this mean for the future of rural areas? What are the challenges and opportunities with regard to aging in rural Canada? The sheer expansive land areas and low population densities of rural communities present a range of challenges for maintaining, let alone improving, age-friendly services. Many rural communities are not very walkable and do not have regional transportation services for older adults, and some do not even have public transport or taxi service at all. And of course, getting around can be even more difficult in the winter. Barriers to mobility heighten the potential for isolation. Health services, or even just gatherings with friends and family, can be impossible to access. But friends and family are also where rural areas can shine.
The socially cohesive nature of many rural communities opens up a lot of opportunities to age well in community. The strong social networks present in many rural communities are invaluable to healthy aging – they provide support, familiarity, and security. Relative to urban and suburban areas, caring is often seen as a community responsibility in rural areas. And although community networks cannot fully replace formal services, they play an enormous role in supporting older adults in rural communities.
If you’d like to learn more about aging in rural Canada, check out the rural section of our book Aging People, Aging Places: Experiences, Opportunities, and Challenges of Growing Older in Canada. You can read an overview of the Rural Section (including Takeaways for Practice and Questions to Consider) here.
Indigenous communities’ relationships to place extend over millennia. These relationships have shaped the way communities are structured as well as individual experiences of aging. Aging for Indigenous individuals has layers of complexity stemming from the support of Indigenous communities and the relationships to land, but also the challenges and oppressions of living within a colonial society that limit many opportunities by regulating much of everyday life.
“Indigenous peoples” is a broad term referring to the original peoples of a place. In the land now referred to as Canada, “Indigenous peoples” are an incredibly diverse group that includes hundreds of different nations and over 70 distinct language groups. According to Statistics Canada, Indigenous peoples make up at least 5% of the overall population of Canada. As of the 2016 Census, there were 1,673,785 Indigenous people in Canada – almost double the figure counted in the 2006 Census. The Indigenous population is generally younger than non-Indigenous populations in Canada. However, the proportion of Indigenous people aged 65 years or older is also rising rapidly. The proportion of Indigenous people 65 years or older jumped from 4.8% in 2006 to 7.3% in 2016.
This ongoing demographic shift has been noted in studies and reflections on the challenges and opportunities of Indigenous aging within what is now known as Canada. Prominent themes related to the challenges are urbanization and relationships to land, health disparities and experiences of dementia and memory loss, and the provision of and access to services in culturally appropriate ways. However, there are many ways in which Indigenous communities support the health and wellbeing of older adults.
Older adults in Indigenous communities are often highly respected and involved in community life. Those who hold healing, ceremonial, community and Indigenous knowledge are often respected and prominent members of the community. Intergenerational activities and infrastructure are considered important to Indigenous aging and (re)connecting with cultural practices, including ceremony, medicine, food, law, and governance can help support the health and wellbeing of older Indigenous people. Indigenous communities and nations have a long history of supporting older adults. Their diverse and unique experiences of aging must be taken into consideration in age-friendly, as well as health and social, community planning and policy.
If you’d like to learn more about Indigenous aging, check out the Indigenous section of our book Aging People, Aging Places: Experiences, Opportunities, and Challenges of Growing Older in Canada. You can read an overview of the Indigenous Section (including Takeaways for Practice and Questions to Consider) here.
Aging People, Aging Places