By Catherine Thompson KITCHENER — From making sure there are plenty of benches in city parks, to helping firefighters recognize the signs of dementia, a new action plan aims to get the city looking at all its operations through the lens of how they affect seniors.
Ensuring Kitchener is age-friendly makes sense on several fronts, said David Dirks, a senior who helped craft the new action plan, which city council will consider at a committee meeting on Monday.
Seniors are the fastest-growing demographic in the city. Within 15 years, one in five people in Kitchener will be over age 65. In less than 20 years, the number of seniors in the community will more than double. Helping them be independent contributing members of society makes economic sense and makes for a richer community, he said.
Making sure the city considers seniors’ needs will improve the community for everybody, he said. For example, ensuring streets are passable in winter helps older residents, but also the disabled and parents with young children.
Coun. Bil Ioannidis said an age-friendly policy just makes sense.
“We’re way behind. When you think that 2011 was the first year the baby boomers were reaching age 65, we should have been doing this 10 years ago.”
With a $50,000 grant from the province, the city launched a broad consultation that included distributing surveys through Meals on Wheels, and talking to people in retirement homes and seniors’ programs.
“People are living longer and healthier and wanting to stay in their home,” said Lori Palubeski, the city manager steering the project. “You need supports in the community that allow people to do that.”
That means programs that are accessible and affordable, so that people on limited incomes aren’t left out.
It means thinking about how the city designs its neighbourhoods and its parks. Traditionally, parks are designed with kids and youth in mind, Palubeski said. But older adults want more benches, water fountains and amenities geared to them, from stationary bikes to panels on birdwatching.
It means making sure seniors have access to information. The city offers a wide array of programs for seniors, from help with snow shovelling to a discount card for recreation programs, but many seniors aren’t aware of them.
“We have some work to do around that, making sure caregivers and agencies know about programs,” Palubeski said. “What we heard is that the Internet is not meeting everybody’s needs. We have to take a broad approach in our communications.”
Many older adults prefer reading stuff that’s actually printed rather than on a screen, and the city needs to deliver information to the places seniors will find it, whether that’s through doctors’ offices, agencies that serve seniors, or some other way, she said.
Seemingly minor issues can have a major impact.
“If I’m a senior and I take the bus and I need to get to a medical appointment, but my neighbour is not shovelling their sidewalk, that can be a real barrier,” Palubeski said. “People can’t get to where they need to go. We heard that, loud and clear.”
The city is waiting for the province to complete a review of standards for sidewalk snow clearing, but seniors made it very clear this is an important issue. Kitchener offers contacts for agencies that can help with shovelling, but Palubeski said some cities have come up with innovative ideas, such as providing grants for a neighbourhood snowblower, that could be explored once the provincial rules are clearer.
Research also showed seniors want to be engaged and contribute to the community, and concludes that the city might need to have a more flexible volunteer structure.
“All older adults have skills and abilities, which they want to use and maximize. And the community, if it’s not careful, will miss out, in terms of their contributions to the community and giving back,” Dirks said.