For many seniors in Powell River, the sunset years can be more worrisome than wonderful.
Raymonde Gagnon said she and her husband, both in their early 70s, are scared about the decisions they will face. Something as basic as getting around town can be a difficult conversation for them.
“He says to me, ‘When I’m too old or can’t see, what if I lose my driver’s licence?’” said Gagnon. “We live in Black Point. We’ll have to take a bus or a cab.”
Powell River is a city of retirees. According to the 2015 Vital Signs report, it has the ninth largest percentage of people age 65 and over in Canada. That demographic includes people who have either lived in the community for a lifetime, or a short time, and share the same challenges that come with aging.
Surveys conducted by organizations that work closely with seniors show that maintaining personal health, including mental, is of great concern, but so are social ties and supports, as are holding onto homes, the ability to drive and finances.
Gagnon said seniors have to start thinking “there are a lot of things you can’t do” as they grow older.
The baby boomer generation, the wealthiest and fittest retirement generation in history, want to age healthy and at home. Governments, health authorities and social agencies are trying to address the difficulties those individuals face. In places such as Powell River, some of those concerns are more acute than others.
“In a small community, you have some challenges,” said Bruce Hobson, chair of Powell River Division of Family Practice.
Hobson is a family physician with a long history of practising in Powell River. A senior himself, he has noted the obstacles seniors face living in the region.
“You don’t have the ease of transportation. You don’t have the walkability,” said Hobson. “You are dependent on a transportation system that, although it exists, is not really as comprehensive as one that would be in the city.”
Hobson said a larger city, such as Vancouver, is walkable, public transportation is easy and available and there are a variety of services, including large tertiary care health services. Larger cities have infrastructure that can support people who are aging and have different medical conditions.
In a small, isolated community such as Powell River, that scale of infrastructure does not exist.
“Access to services is a lot more limited and certainly the ability to provide healthcare services to complex patients can be challenging, especially where there can be episodic or even prolonged need to transfer people for care that just is not available in Powell River,” said Hobson.
No current statistics show an increase in the number of retirees who are moving to Powell River, according to Scott Randolph, manager of economic development for City of Powell River. However, there are indicators, said Randolph.
“We’ve been hearing from the real estate community that there is a good mixture of them, especially over the last year, that cashed in on properties in urban areas and bought here,” he said. “We’ve been seeing that trend over the last couple of years.”
Randolph said retirees in the area have also driven new housing starts in the community. He said some of the developments going forward are geared toward retirement living.
“We’ve seen some retirement developments built here,” he said, “and more on the way.”
Christien Kaaij, project manager for Powell River Division of Family Practice, recently completed her masters in community development at University of Victoria with a research project about aging in Powell River.
According to Kaaij, it is a difficult place to age and the region should not be promoted as a place to retire. She emphasizes the shortage of housing as one of the big reasons.
Studies show the majority of seniors have not moved from their homes in the last 20 years and prefer to live at home for the rest of their lives.
Gagnon and her husband hope to stay in their own home, but it may not be possible.
“If I broke a hip, we couldn’t live there because the house has a bunch of steps,” said Gagnon. “We’d have to build a ramp. I don’t want to move, I really don’t.”
According to Kaaij, for many retirees, Powell River might not allow for that.
“We all assume that we will age well and stay healthy,” said Kaaij. “The reality is that when we age we lose quite a lot of our mobility; stairs and bathrooms become big issues.”
For people moving to Powell River, housing for retirees is hard to find, she said. Inventory is low and limited variety makes it difficult to choose suitable housing for those wanting to move here for retirement.
“A few things have happened, but when you look at the housing stock in Powell River, not many seniors’ homes or same level apartments have been developed,” she said. “There have been some developments with rancher-style houses, which is, of course, better than if you have a family house with multiple levels. A few things have happened, but not enough, especially if you look at the number of seniors we have in our community.”
On the flip side, according to Hobson, while there are definite challenges to aging in a smaller, more rural community, there are benefits as well.
“In a large city, people disappear,” he said. “There is less awareness in many neighbourhoods of who people are and what’s going on. In a small community, people are just more aware.”
Hobson said the decision to move to Powell River for retirement depends on individual situations.
“It depends on the person and on their already established support, their finances and ability to travel and their mobility,” he said.
Kaaij said Powell River should not be going after the retirement market because the city does not have the infrastructure to deal with the significantly aging population it already has.
“For people to come and retire in Powell River without having support services in place is difficult. People need to leave our community because we don’t offer everything,” said Kaaij. “Without solving those limitations, and without having the adequate housing stock and services, I don’t think it’s wise to promote Powell River as a community you should retire in.”