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Our world is growing older. As birth rates continue to drop, and younger residents and recent immigrants congregate in a small number of global cities, the demographic geography of Western nations has become increasing uneven (Townshend and Walker, 2015). While it is important to celebrate the fact that people are living longer and healthier, such changes in population also challenge the viability of economic and healthcare systems (Nefs et al, 2013). Canada’s demographic shift is particularly significant as Canada is home to the world’s largest proportion of ‘baby boomers’ – those born between 1947 and 1966 (Foot, 1999). As the baby boomers reach and pass retirement age, Canada’s population pyramid will become increasingly top-heavy. The shift is already well underway. As of 2015, Canadians aged 65 years and older have outnumbered children aged 0 to 14 years (Statistics Canada, 2015).

The aging of the population has called into question how prepared national, provincial, and local governments are to support the needs of the heterogeneous older adult population. Though national- and provincial-level planning on macro-level issues like pensions and healthcare is commonplace, these debates neglect how policies play out on the ground in the complex and varied regional milieu of a large nation like Canada (Hodge, 2008). Recent research has shown a ubiquitous increase in older adult populations across Canadian municipalities (Hartt and Biglieri, 2018). Of course, an increase in the older adult population is not problematic in its own right. More concerning is that the Canadian cities expected to age the most are also the least likely to have begun any age-friendly planning (Hartt and Biglieri, 2018).

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Experiences, Opportunities, and Challenges of Growing Older in Canada

How well do the places where we live support the wellbeing of older adults?

The Canadian population is growing older and is reshaping the nation’s economic, social and cultural future. However, the built and social environments of many communities, neighbourhoods and cities have not been designed to help Canadians age well.

Bringing together academic research, practitioner reflections and personal narratives from older adults across Canada, this cutting-edge text provides a rare spotlight on the local implications of aging in Canadian cities and communities. It explores employment, housing, transportation, cultural safety, health, planning and more, to provide a wide-ranging and comprehensive discussion of how to build supportive communities for Canadians of all ages.

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In this overview chapter, we call upon data from Statistics Canada and the academic literature to present some stylized facts and figures regarding rural older adults and a synthesis of the challenges and opportunities of aging in rural environments. This chapter serves to provide (1) a snapshot of Canadian rural demographic trends, (2) an overview of the state-of-the-art thinking on rural aging, and (3) contextual framing for the in-depth research chapters and vignettes that make up the rural part of this book.

Anyone remotely familiar with Canada’s geography would not be surprised to learn that by land area, Canada is predominantly rural. Concentrated areas of population cover very little of Canada’s expansive 9.9 million square kilometres. Upwards of 90% of the Canadian population live within 160 kilometres of the almost 9,000-kilometre-long Canada–US border (CBC News, 2009). In short, the vast majority of Canada is sparsely populated.

Broadly speaking, we consider these sparsely populated places to be rural. Although there is no single perfect definition of a rural environment, rural can be operationally defined as an area with a population density under than 400 people per square kilometre (Channer et al, 2020). Using data from Statistics Canada (2019) population estimates, we found that 8.5 million of Canada’s roughly 35 million people live in rural areas. Of those 8.5 million, approximately 1.5 million are aged 65 and over. Like everywhere in Canada, the cohort of Canadians aged 85 and over is growing quickly. Almost 150,000 rural Canadians are 85 years of age or over (Statistics Canada, 2019).

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In this overview chapter, we call upon data from Statistics Canada and the academic literature to present some stylized facts and figures regarding urban older adults and a synthesis of the challenges and opportunities of aging in urban environments. This chapter serves to provide (1) a snapshot of Canadian urban demographic trends, (2) an overview of the state-of-the-art thinking on urban aging, and (3) contextual framing for the in-depth research chapters and vignettes that make up the urban part of this book.

Canada is predominantly a nation of rural spaces. By land area, urban locations occupy only 0.25% of Canada’s 9.9 million square kilometres. However, urbanization is quickly changing the national landscape. While Canada’s urban areas are growing steadily, they are simultaneously driving considerable suburban growth in their periphery. As we note in Chapter 6, Canada is a suburban nation. And those huge suburbs are growing around Canada’s urban centres. The three largest metropolitan areas (which include both urban and suburban areas), Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver, are home to more than a third of all Canadians, with a combined population of 12.5 million (Statistics Canada, 2019).

For many, urban Canada evokes images of these three iconic cities. Big, bustling conurbations with dense downtowns, skyscrapers, and expensive housing. But like suburban and rural areas, urban regions can take a variety of shapes and forms. Although there is no one perfect definition of ‘urban’, we adopt the following operational definition in order to provide a generalized overview of urban demographic trends in Canada: urban areas are dissemination areas (as defined by Statistics Canada) with a population density of 5,000 or more people per square kilometre, or areas with a population density of 1,000 to 5,000 people per square kilometre where fewer than 60% of population commutes by car (Channer et al, 2020).

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In this overview chapter, we call upon data from Statistics Canada and the academic literature to present some stylized facts and figures regarding suburban older adults and a synthesis of the challenges and opportunities of aging in suburban environments. This chapter serves to provide (1) a snapshot of Canadian suburban demographic trends, (2) an overview of the state-of-the-art thinking on suburban aging, and (3) contextual framing for the in-depth research chapters and vignettes that make up the suburban part of this book.

Canada’s built environment and population growth predominantly occurs on the (sometimes sprawling) urban fringe. Put simply, Canada is a suburban nation. In Canada’s largest metropolitan areas, including Vancouver, Montréal, and Toronto, the proportion of suburban residents exceeds 80% (Gordon and Janzen, 2013).

Generally, traditional forms of suburban locations can be characterized by a variety of factors including the proportion of single-family housing, car commuting patterns, population density, and home-ownership rates. However, we recognize that the modern suburban landscape is complex and diverse (Keil, 2017) and that there is no single perfect operational definition of suburban (Forsyth, 2012). We adopt the following operational definition in order to provide a generalized overview of suburban demographic trends in Canada: suburban areas are dissemination areas (as defined by Statistics Canada) with a population density between 1,000 and 4,000 people per square kilometre with over 60% of commutes made by car, or simply with a population density of 400–1,000 people per square kilometre (Channer et al, 2020).

Using the data from the Statistics Canada (2019a) population estimates, we found that more than half (18 million) of Canada’s population resides in suburban areas.

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Older adults have been thrown into the spotlight of the COVID-19 pandemic and the bright lights have exposed both societies’ admirable and deplorable traits. We have seen stories of heart-warming compassion and deep-rooted ageism. From the appalling #boomerremover hashtag to the calls for mandatory quarantines for those over 70 years of age, public responses to COVID-19 demonstrate the role of age and (dis)ability in amplifying social and spatial inequalities. Although these reactions are unfounded, unethical, and have not received widespread political support, they do highlight the distressing interrelation of several truths: society at large is aging; older adults are at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19; and the social and physical infrastructure of cities has not been built to support the needs of older adults. In addition to the risks of COVID-19, the confluence of these three realities has potentially exacerbated a second public health crisis: loneliness. And as in the case of COVID-19, older adults are particularly susceptible. In this chapter we examine the relationship between COVID-19, social distance, social isolation, and loneliness with a focus on the older adult experience in urban and suburban environments. In addition to outlining the risks faced by older adults in times of crisis, we explore opportunities to strengthen social bonds while physically distancing through the development of blended communities or virtual retirement villages. Using the experience of the Oakridge Seniors Association in suburban Calgary, we offer targeted recommendations for community leaders and policy makers on how to minimize risk and maximize social cohesion by embracing communication technology while remembering the importance of human interaction. (Chapters Eleven and Twelve also explore the theme of self-organization in the face of the pandemic, but from the perspective of different national contexts and social categories.)

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