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Canada’s oldest towns offer lessons for an aging nation

Community Wheels provides pay-what-you-can transportation for seniors from remote areas in Nova Scotia.

Community Wheels provides pay-what-you-can transportation for seniors from remote areas in Nova Scotia.

Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail

The boomer shift

'This is the demographic tsunami'

Two of Canada's oldest areas offer lessons for an aging nation. Jacqueline Nelson reports from the South Shore region of Nova Scotia. Brent Jang reports from Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island

Update: Canada's seniors now outnumber the country's children, according to the 2016 Census.

This is part of The Globe and Mail's week-long series on baby boomers and how their spending, investing, health and lifestyle decisions could affect Canada's economy in the next fifteen years. Is Canada ready for the boom?

For more, visit tgam.ca/boomershift and on Twitter at #GlobeBoomers.

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A wave of baby boomers entering their senior years is washing across Canada, forcing communities to rethink everything from access to health care to what shops stock on their shelves.

Two coastal regions on the country's East and West edges have already begun to feel the effects of changing demographics as they contend with an allotment of seniors that far exceeds the country's average.

For the communities on the South Shore of Nova Scotia – where the proportion of people aged 65-plus is the highest in Canada – pockets of poverty among groupings of more comfortable retirees have challenged volunteers and governments to help a swelling number of seniors age gracefully and comfortably.

Meanwhile, the idyllic Qualicum Beach, B.C. – the greyest town in Canada – has made catering to the needs of more affluent older Canadians into a brand.

Both offer hints about what aging baby boomers across Canada are likely to demand from their communities in the coming years, and cautionary notes on the importance of bolstering social services geared to retirees.


The town of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.

The town of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.

Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail

South Shore of Nova Scotia

The Bridgewater Senior Citizens' Club meets in the back of the local curling rink for a card party on Wednesday evenings. The largely female group aged 60 to 92 rotates around tables playing a fast-paced East Coast card game called Forty-Fives, not breaking until 10 p.m. for coffee and snacks.

"It's quite competitive," says the club's president Bill Corkum, with a chuckle.

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But the club has lost about 20 members in the past few years. "Maybe about five years ago we had 85 members. A lot of them died, of course. And a lot of them have moved into apartment houses where they have cards and such for entertainment. They don't see any need to come out," Mr. Corkum says.

Other seniors clubs across Nova Scotia are also dwindling amid shifting demographics, a trend that some worry will cause increased social isolation in a province that is 43-per-cent rural. That could be influenced for better or worse by the coming generation of baby boomer retirees.

"Boomers do not want to join a traditional seniors club," says Anne Corbin, executive director of Community Links, a provincial organization that promotes community development, volunteering and equality for older adults. "I don't think the boomers want to play cards or bingo. There's TV and the Internet."

The challenge to ensure older Canadians have the access to not only social events, but transportation, safe housing and health care is playing out on the coast of Nova Scotia a few years ahead of other Canadian regions. Already, Atlantic Canada's proportion of seniors is higher than the national average, with more and more baby boomers set to join those ranks.

Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail

The South Shore region in particular has the highest proportion of people aged 65 and older in all of Canada – nearly one quarter of the population, according to Statistics Canada.

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As lawmakers and community groups grapple with the best ways to support today's seniors and prepare for the needs of greying baby boomers, the South Shore has become a hotbed for new ideas. And it's not always a lack of funding that stands in the way of getting much-needed programs off the ground. Some community groups say efforts flop because it's hard for many older adults to concede that they need a bit of help. And that is an issue not expected to abate as the boomers age.

One thing that might be different is that the boomer generation has long been at the forefront of social forces that have reshaped society, says Leo Glavine, the province's Minister of Seniors and Health and Wellness, who identifies as a boomer himself. "I feel that's the other side of the coin here," he says, adding the cohort is mostly "well educated, they have had a very high degree of employment in their lifetime and they come into the aging years with many talents, many skills and many views of wanting to continue to contribute."

Mr. Glavine is counting on boomers' urge to start new businesses or take on other jobs in their later years. He suggests that it is time to divide up the broad category of "seniors" to better reflect their range of professional and community-focused contributions.

Communities such as Mahone Bay show that it's important to address these challenges early, and to have a contingency plan.

In 2006, one third of the coastal town's population was more than 65 years of age, far exceeding provincial averages. That's projected to reach 53 per cent by 2031.

"This is the bad news part. This is the demographic tsunami," says Ted Hobson, director of the seniors project at the Mahone Bay Centre. The good news, he says, is the town's converted schoolhouse has become a hub for piloting seniors' social programs such as a Lifelong Learning Lecture series, at which retired professors expound on topics such as Soviet history, and a memory café, which supports those grappling with Alzheimer's.

Ted Hobson, director of the seniors project at the Mahone Bay Centre.

Ted Hobson, director of the seniors project at the Mahone Bay Centre.

Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail

It's also home base for the South Shore Helping Hands Project, in which 64 volunteers assist seniors with weekly errands, chores, home repairs and maintenance.

The program could soon be rolled out in other communities, but it took more than five years of advertising, training volunteers and gaining credibility with the medical system for Helping Hands to gain traction.

Living independently at home is a scenario many boomers envision and governments are counting on to save money. Nova Scotia's goal is to reduce the average amount of time spent in a nursing home to two years, from about three, says Mr. Glavine. That will open up 1,000 more beds per year for those in need, and reduce wait lists.

"I would say as a province – as one of the oldest in the country, from the first European settlement here – we have a tremendous amount of old housing stock," says Mr. Glavine, of his most pressing concern. "I see one of the real big needs is to make sure that home environment is absolutely suitable to the senior."

In order to be healthy at home, seniors need to be able to get out of the house, too.

That was the idea behind the Community Wheels program that offers pay-what-you-can transportation from the surrounding area into the town of Chester. For older residents of rural areas, the transportation system has offered a chance to get groceries, attend medical appointments and pick up prescriptions. Organizers say more spending on transportation could alleviate the strain on the health care system.

Other towns in Canada should take note that there's no quick fix for these issues, and every community will react differently to offers of help.

"Community development takes a long time – it doesn't happen in a four-year political cycle," Ms. Corbin says. "Helicoptering in won't work."


Seaside homes are pictured in Qualicum Beach, B.C.

Seaside homes are pictured in Qualicum Beach, B.C.

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

Qualicum Beach, B.C.

In a Vancouver Island community that proudly boasts Canada's oldest population, bottles of organic balsamic vinegar and jars of natural peanut butter are stacked neatly in a grocery store.

Store co-owner John Briuolo, 58, has seen a surge in demand in Qualicum Beach over the years for premium food products. Baby boomers form the bulk of Qualicum Foods' customer base, and the shelves largely reflect their tastes. "I try to think younger," says Mr. Briuolo, who keeps a close watch over the products he's stocking. Boomers are aging, but they remain a force to be reckoned with, he says after sweeping the floor in Aisle 5.

Older residents walked and jogged along the oceanfront on a recent warm weekend, vastly outnumbering families with young children. Qualicum Beach's mild climate gives it an advantage in luring boomers from the Prairies. But the town's demographics provide a glimpse into what many retirement communities across Canada can expect to look like in the years ahead – a greying population of discerning consumers who remain active with outdoor activities, not hidden away in seniors' homes.

Qualicum Beach Mayor Teunis Westbroek says residents in the picturesque town believe their own best-before dates will stretch long past 70. The town's median age in the 2011 census was 63.9 years – older than a nearby retirement community, Parksville, which rang in at 59.4 years, and well above the national median of 40.6 years.

Residents 50 years or older accounted for almost three-quarters of Qualicum Beach's population. More than 47 per cent of the population was age 65 or older.

Baby boomers have driven up demand in the region not only for organic and gluten-free products, but also for golf tee times, residential landscaping and health services.

Mayor Teunis Westbroek is pictured on the seawall of Qualicum Beach.

Mayor Teunis Westbroek is pictured on the seawall of Qualicum Beach.

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

Mr. Westbroek, 62, has been the mayor of Qualicum Beach since 1999. He has witnessed the greying of the town, and with it, the realization that most baby boomers retiring in the area still want to live in detached houses. Qualicum Beach tends to attract retirees who are more affluent than those in other Vancouver Island communities. What they have in common, though, is a desire to stay active.

Three golf courses are within Qualicum Beach's boundaries, including one owned by the town. Cycling and walking are popular. And so is volunteering. "The No. 1 lesson that I've learned as mayor is to respect and work with volunteers. They are the backbone of the community. We have volunteers who help run the new fire hall, curling club, lawn bowling club, theatre, ball fields and town golf course," Mr. Westbroek says. "We have to make sure we stay vibrant."

Qualicum Beach is notable for having a distinct lack of fast-food franchises and retail chains. "You won't find McDonald's or Tim Hortons here," says Vivien Sansom, a 69-year-old retiree who volunteers at the Qualicum Beach visitor information centre. People craving junk food have many outlets to choose from in Parksville.

While some boomers volunteer for the local fire department, younger recruits are being sought, and finding volunteers in their 20s or 30s isn't easy.

Qualicum Beach has learned to take a regional view of health services. The nearest emergency hospitals are at least a 35-minute drive away in Comox, Nanaimo or Port Alberni. Qualicum Beach does have ambulance service through the province. There is a shortage of doctors in Qualicum Beach, though the mayor says regional medical services improved with the opening of the Oceanside Health Centre in Parksville in 2013.

The influx of boomers, notably empty-nesters from the Prairies and other parts of British Columbia, sparked a real estate bonanza in Qualicum Beach – which looks affordable when compared with Vancouver. The average price of detached houses in the City of Vancouver has reached $2.2-million. Boomers could cash out from urban areas in Canada and scoop up a Qualicum Beach home with an ocean view for roughly $800,000.

A couple walks along Second Street in Qualicum Beach.

A couple walks along Second Street in Qualicum Beach.

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

Then there are large homes without an ocean view. During an open house in Qualicum Beach, Macdonald Realty agent Amy Hadikin showed a sprawling newly built bungalow with 2,196 square feet on the main floor – living space equivalent to a two-storey house in some urban neighbourhoods. Ms. Hadikin, who is in her early 40s, says the place she listed is an example of a higher-end property. It's priced at $769,000 plus the GST applied to new houses, but on Vancouver's west side the listing would be a multimillion-dollar property.

Dan Smith, 57, and his wife Laurie, 59, bought their detached home 13 years ago in Qualicum Beach for $158,000. Today, they reckon their modest property could fetch $500,000. "A lot of retired folks are coming out to the West Coast for the weather," says Mr. Smith, a former Winnipeg resident who works as a house painter.

Last year, the Qualicum Beach Digital Media Studio opened in a former train station in an effort to attract a younger work force. Some technology entrepreneurs need drop-in space only one or two days a week, but the business incubator has become popular for rental rooms for community events.

In the 2011 census, there were 6,320 people aged 50 or older, or 72.7 per cent of Qualicum Beach's population of 8,690. And there were 585 children aged 15 years or younger, or 6.7 per cent of the total.

The ripple effects from Canada's greying population will be felt on everything from schools to grocery stores as retirement towns come to grips with demographics of aging. "There aren't many kids here," Mr. Smith says.

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