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A low-cost answer to our aging population? We’re already doing it.

Why the Canadian Association on Gerontology is interested in one UofGH Professor’s findings… and why others should be, too

By now, a discussion around the aging population and its impacts needs almost no introduction. Dr. Brenda Elias, professor in the Family and Community Social Services program at the University of Guelph-Humber, echoes the sentiment: “We know we are looking forward to amazing numbers of people growing old. We know about the baby boomers.”

The latest population projections, according to Ontario’s Ministry of Finance, show the number of seniors aged 65 and over to more than double – from 1.9 million to 4.2 million – by the year 2036.

Add to this one more absolute: “And we know about the huge concern around healthcare costs,” says Dr. Elias.

While part of the Ontario government’s solution has been, in Dr. Elias’ words, ‘investing billions in big healthcare centres with lots of technology and expensive machines’, she has been investing her time in searching elsewhere for answers.

“In looking at small, rural communities, we find very rich and vibrant centres,” she says. “They may look sleepy, but in fact, they’re good places to grow old because of amazing volunteers leading not-for-profit organizations. Not because of trained professionals.”

She adds that the investments put forth by larger provinces in Canada, such as Ontario, often don’t reach many seniors, as rural communities often boast senior populations of more than 50 per cent. These seniors often don’t have access to family doctors or walk-in clinics – something city dwellers might take for granted.

Remarkable success amid unremarkable circumstances

Dr. Elias’ research took her to Georgetown, a small community in Ontario, home to a not-for-profit-run seniors facility called Bennett Village. What she found was remarkable success amid unremarkable circumstances.

“This not-for profit organization already has two facilities for seniors, but given the needs of their population, they’re being proactive and planning for a third next spring with long-term care beds,” says Dr. Elias.

She continues: “This community doesn’t have any more money than anyone else in Ontario. But what they’re saying is, we have a responsibility to our neighbours; we can take control of this situation; we don’t need government money.”

“They didn’t wait for someone else to come along and offer financial help. They just went out and did it. What they have is strong leadership - and that’s what it’s all about,” she says.

Dr. Elias points to what she calls a newfound calibre of volunteer as the reason behind such strong leadership. As baby boomers now enter retirement, a new pool of trained professionals is forming.

“We’ve never before had trained professionals with the time, resources, energy, and enough pension money [to support such demanding volunteerism]. This is a tremendous resource that Canadians have, that is not necessarily replicated around the world – not even in the United States,” she says.

Volunteerism is a very fragile thing

In finding that small, rural Canadian communities are capable of supporting successful aging, Dr. Elias’ work corroborates that of others, including Dr. Norah Keating, a professor in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta, and one of Canada’s pre-eminent social gerontologists.

The key now is to get the right people listening.

She presented her findings at the Canadian Association on Gerontology’s Scientific and Educational Meeting, “but if we can discover what makes a successful, supportive community, and how to sustain leadership in the community – then that may be a very low cost option that government may want to take a look at.”

Sustaining strong leadership does add a final twist to this story. If successful communities are those that are taking advantage of their volunteers, then how can we ensure future volunteerism?

Admittedly a concern for Dr. Elias, who shakes her head at a provincial government policy designed to support the trend: high school students in Ontario must complete a minimum of 40 hours of community involvement activities in order to graduate.

“I’m torn about this policy, because I’m worried that we’re not making sure that younger people understand volunteerism,” she says. “Volunteerism is a very fragile thing, and I’m worried about the future.”

Research at UofGH
Family & Community Social Services
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