The Aging City

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.

Still, there’s much about the urban environment that militates forcefully against seniors’ ability to move comfortably around their communities. The World Health Organization recently published a study on “age-friendly” global cities, based on focus groups with 1,458 seniors in thirty-three international cities, as well as service providers and caregivers. On page after page, the elderly participants itemize the idiosyncrasies that make it difficult or unnerving for them to get from A to B: cracked or narrow sidewalks, raucous parks, missing handrails, inadequate priority seating on transit vehicles, a dearth of benches and public toilets on city streets, lurching buses, reckless cyclists, long and tiring queues in stores. “Cross lights,” one respondent says, “are made for Olympic runners.”

That’s precisely what a team of University of Toronto planning students discovered last year when they surveyed seniors living in a pair of Scarborough communities. Both neighbourhoods are reasonably well served by transit and offered a range of necessary services within close proximity, but residents said they had to deal with all types of hurdles: ramps that were too steep, longish treks across mall parking lots, and of course awful suburban arterials. One eighty-one-year-old woman spoke of her reluctance to brave the traffic. “I may have enough time to cross the street,” she explained, “but I am too nervous to try.”

Predicting the future is always a mug’s game, but there’s a temptation to apply the standard baby boomer overlay to the aging story: the boomers, goes the thinking, won’t tolerate sluggish transit, inaccessible buildings, and crumbling sidewalks. Gridlock will abate, because fewer people are working. The development industry will figure out—already is figuring out, in fact—how to cater to a burgeoning market of downsizers. Indeed, the generational numbers will give rise to age-oriented innovations—seniors-only taxi services, perhaps, or covered motorized wheelchairs operating on their own rights-of-way—designed to eradicate mobility impediments.

Planners, for their part, argue that cities can become more amenable to seniors only through careful intensification: mid-rise apartments clustered around the pre-war model of the urban village anchored by the traditional high street. Such an approach, adopted as a goal by such cities as Toronto and Vancouver, will provide the economies of scale for local shops, transit, and pedestrian-friendly spaces. This development model, European in flavour, is meant to lure younger seniors out of the car-dependent single-family homes where they raised their children. It’s an appealing vision, and one that dovetails with progressive thinking about sustainable urban design.

There are plenty of examples of that kind of urban redevelopment, and where it’s taken root (typically in older, more affluent, neighbourhoods) it works well. But one doesn’t need to spend too much time in North American cities to realize that the lion’s share of development is going in the opposite direction. Thanks to skyrocketing downtown land prices, the high-rise condo, mostly packed with cramped one-bedroom apartments, dominates all other modes of new downtown housing. And most of these towers are marketed to young people armed with a starter mortgage and a cube van’s worth of ikea furniture.

Out on the periphery, meanwhile, traffic engineers continue to expand roads and highway access. Risk-averse developers and obedient municipal politicians ensure that new subdivisions remain isolated monocultures with scant housing variety and virtually no retail, apart from the desultory gas station/convenience store pod at every major intersection. And with the exception of a few older plaza revitalizations and a nod to better landscaping, mall design hasn’t changed much since the 1960s.

For all their aesthetic and environmental failings, suburban malls will almost certainly play a significant role in the way our cities age in the coming decades. They already are. About twenty years ago, seniors in many parts of North America began to congregate at covered regional malls to walk and socialize. Since then, a handful of malls—mostly in downtown areas with more population diversity as well as older post-war suburbs—have seen fit to lease space to such non-retail tenants as health professionals, daycare facilities, community agencies, and seniors’ drop-in centres. While mall owners may have been struggling to fill empty storefronts, the result points toward a repositioning of the shopping centre as a full-service hub better suited to the needs of an aging suburban society.

Planners who think about these changes observe that municipalities can easily add conditions to planning approvals, providing mall developers with incentives to market their properties to community agencies as well as retailers. “When we’re designing malls, we have to think about supporting the population that uses them,” says Kaegi. “You can do this so easily when you’re thinking about infrastructure to support people. You take service delivery to where the people are.” Her observation points to a more clear-eyed assessment about how we’ll have to retool our cities: it’s not going to be about form, but rather about function.

While seniors’ advocates say governments have to get back into the business of building subsidized supportive housing specifically for older people, the reality is that the supply will never equal demand. Moreover, the boomers, with their health and increasing longevity, will likely be inclined to stay put, either in their suburban homes or condo apartments. So when decrepitude and loss of mobility finally catch up to them, they’ll want the health, transportation, and personal support services to come to them.

It’s a sea change. In previous generations, many older people moved, either by choice or against their will, into seniors’ homes or isolated long-term care facilities when the time came. But the retirement apartment business is little more than a real estate racket, and the publicly funded but privately managed long-term care sector has suffered irreparable damage due to widespread reports of shoddy care, elder abuse, and dirty conditions.

Some jurisdictions have begun to shift away from institutionalizing old people to delivering more home care and personal support services. Quality of life is strongly linked to the ability to remain in your own community and have access to a range of home-based services—everything from nurse visits to meals on wheels and shuttle buses to the local mall. “The social network isn’t just about company,” says Ferguson. “It helps to maintain health.”

Most provinces do offer some, though not enough, funding for these kinds of community services. Seniors’ support networks also tend to emerge organically and unevenly, resulting in a patchwork of local not-for-profit agencies. In small towns and older downtown areas, with their higher concentrations of seniors, such home-based services have been available for years. In the suburbs, however, there are yawning gaps, as well as complicating factors. Raymond Applebaum is the executive director of Peel Senior Link, a non-profit that provides personal support services to about 1,100 seniors living in various Mississauga apartments. Many are very elderly women, and poor: as he notes, 14 percent of the population of this sprawling suburban satellite city lives in poverty. “People just don’t get that.”

And then there’s the cultural angle. Mississauga, like many suburbs, is home to immigrants from dozens of countries; according to Applebaum, ninety languages are represented in this municipality of more than 600,000. Some elderly immigrants live with their children and grandchildren in subdivisions, while others have apartments and families who email instructions from Asia and the Middle East. “We do pretty well on the language side,” he says, “but language isn’t the real issue. It’s being culturally sensitive.”

The great imponderable in all this, Glenn Miller observes, is how the politics of aging will play out in large urban centres. Japan and Britain, both ahead of Canada on the aging curve, are implementing policies to prepare cities for these changes. The Japanese adopted the idea of “universal design,” which emphasizes utility and access for all users, regardless of age (no more cellphones with tiny buttons). The British government appointed “foresight” officials, who have a mandate to urge planners and manufacturers to find ways to address seniors’ needs in everything they do.

These are well-intended endeavours. But the coming debates about our aging cities are likely to be rancorous, and the policy decisions intensely controversial. Property tax breaks for seniors are intended to shield pensioners on fixed incomes from being forced to move because they can’t afford rising taxes. Thirty years from now, however, all that forgone revenue could seriously hinder local councils, precisely when municipalities are facing other age-related fiscal pressures—e.g., fewer work-related transit users paying fares, coupled with rising demand for accessible vehicles and paratransit service. Will local politicians phase out the tax breaks and face the scorn of a large and outspoken constituency, or will they cut services that cater to other age groups?

The driving issue also opens up a veritable Pandora’s box of political conflict. Ferguson feels that all drivers over seventy-five should have to pass a mandatory road test each year. But routine testing will inevitably lead to more confiscated driver’s licences, more anger, resentment, and dependency on the part of those who fail, and additional pressure on families, caregivers, and agencies that provide shuttle services.At the same time, the rapidly growing number of motorized wheelchairs on city sidewalks and streets points toward a whole new dynamic about public space. Are we heading for a time when wheelchair users are compelled to take driving tests or form pressure groups to demand dedicated lanes? Indeed, as more seniors face increasing difficulty getting around urban neighbourhoods, a profound question arises: is mobility an inalienable right?

Many commentators have observed that in coming decades, provincial health budgets will be increasingly stretched between two functions: health care for the old and, to a lesser extent, education for the young. It’s not hard to see how this struggle will make its mark on the shape of our cities. Already, developers in some areas are eyeing decommissioned elementary schools as potential retirement homes and long-term care facilities.

It’s the telling detail: the postwar public school, once bustling with baby boomers, morphs into the last stop. And then what?

John Lorinc
John Lorinc is a senior editor at Spacing and a frequent Walrus contributor.

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