Improving our Community One Elder at a Time

By Wendy Johnstone
February 11, 2010

keystone-eldercare-caregiver-coaching“The death of an old person is like the loss of a library”African Proverb

This past week brought me two inspirational and very motivating experiences.

First, my weekly run in the rain was suddenly filled with a burst of human sunshine when I was passed by a runner, who looked twice my age. Never one to pass up a personal challenge, I gritted my teeth and increased my stride to see what my legs held. As I gasped my way beside my counterpart, I struck up a friendly conversation hoping that I’d be doing most of the listening up the hills.

Mr. “M” (who happily informed me he was 72-years-old) and I ran for about 30 minutes. I listened to how he took up running at age 62, marvelled at his “bucket list” and his range of career choices, gained inspiration from his ability to overcome adversity (including the tragic loss of one of his children) and soaked up as much of his positive energy as I could.

Second, my husband and I attended the Chamber of Commerce Annual Community Awards and I was awe-struck by the amazing talents, skills and big hearts that we have in the Comox Valley. Watching a video highlighting the Citizen of the Year recipient, John Marinus talked about living in Holland during the war when Canada helped liberate the Dutch and the opportunities to give back to his community.

His story took my breath away. John is retired and I admire his contributions to society through his dedicated volunteer work and life experience. He’s a walking testament to his ability to make use of the gifts he’s been blessed with by sharing them with his peers and future generations.

In conjunction with Our Big Earth’s community and cultural literacy theme and the Age-Friendly Community Initiative taking place in Comox, it was loud and clear that I needed to write about an elder, or senior’s, role in community.

In many countries, such as Africa, Japan and Greece, elders are revered, respected and responsible to pass on wisdom and life experiences with younger generations. In more Westernized cultures, we are bombarded with anti-aging solutions to fight the decline of beauty and strength. Consequently, we tend to view aging as a skeleton in the closet – something we are ashamed of really don’t want to think or talk about.

William Thomas is a Gerontologist and author of the book, “What are Old People For: How Elders Will Save the World.” He challenges his readers to re-wire their thinking and see the presence of elders as an essential component in completing our vision of society. A common thread through his book is to see elders offering warmth, wisdom and stewardship to communities and society.

Just watch a grandparent and grandchild master the art of “being” as opposed to “doing” and the concept and benefits of elders become very clear and real. In his book, Thomas describes Eldertopia as:

A community that improves the quality of life for people of all ages by strengthening and improving the means by which (1) the community protects, sustains and nurtures its elders, and (2) the elders contribute to the well-being and foresight of the community. An Eldertopia that is blessed with a large number of older people is acknowledged to be “elder-rich” and uses this human capital to the advantage of all.”

Community and cultural literacy are closely tied to Eldertopia, as well as the current Age-Friendly Community Initiative in Comox. Using best practices from the World Health Organization of Age-Friendly Cities Initiative, communities in British Columbia have the opportunity to adapt their structures and services to be accessible and inclusive to the needs of people of all ages with a variety of capacities and abilities.

The ideal Age-Friendly Community is to embrace our aging population’s resources and potential to maximize opportunities for older people to be healthy, active and secure in their living environments.

I asked James Brynzda from the Arlington Group to provide some information about the Age-Friendly Community Initiative for the Town of Comox. The Arlington Group is a consulting firm designed to assist communities through planning projects such as Official Community Plans and Age-Friendly Community Initiatives.

The Town of Comox is currently updating its Official Community Plan (OCP), which is the primary document for objectives and policies to guide Council in land use and development decisions. As part of this OCP process, the Town has secured funding for an age-friendly community planning component. More specifically, the Town would like to focus on:

Encouraging the participation of older people in the OCP process

Researching the implications of an aging population as they relate to the Town of Comox

Preparing objectives and policies in the updated OCP to better prepare for an aging population in a sustainable way with particular attention given to housing, transportation and traffic safety (including public and private outdoor space and public facilities).

This work is especially important for Comox because the town has a significantly high proportion of people aged 65 and over. Compared to the provincial proportion of just 14.6%, about 23% of the Comox’s population is 65 years or over and this number is expected to increase. As the population of seniors in the Town of Comox increases, more and more pressure will be put on satisfying seniors’ needs.

The Town of Comox is using a locally-driven and bottom-up participatory approach to empower older adults in voicing issues related to aging in our community. Who better to drive the initiative than the seniors living in Comox? After all, they are the experts about their own lives and can provide on-the-ground advice to meet the needs of an aging population.

A background paper on age-friendly planning in Comox has been posted on the project website and is available for viewing at: www.comoxocp.ca.

Readers might be thinking, “This whole idea of Eldertopia is quite idyllic, but is it realistic?” Well, the same argument could be made about reducing our carbon footprint or obliterating the shark fin trade. Like any vision, it starts by raising awareness and becoming more conscious about the issue at hand.

Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” As we become more aware of initiatives involving the improvement of the quality of living for seniors and the contributions our grandparents and elders make to our future generations, we are one step closer towards dispelling the myths of aging and reducing bias against our seniors.

We can begin to stop seeing aging as a problem, but rather embracing this longevity and unlocking the answers to how we can better live together as a society.

 

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