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Rural Manitoba both good and bad for aging seniors

The people make it work, but the places can be hostile environments, says a Centre on Aging speaker

Older adults often prefer to walk and want good, smooth sidewalks to do so, says Connie Newman, executive director of the Manitoba Association of Senior Centres. Photo: Marie Claude Lemay/iStock/Getty Images

Small towns can be great places to retire and live out one’s golden years — or not.

A community with nearby family and lifelong friends is what draws or keeps people there. It’s more difficult to live there when appropriate and well-located housing, good sidewalks, and alternative modes of travel for non-drivers aren’t.

Richard Milgrom, a University of Manitoba associate dean (research) in the faculty of architecture and a Centre on Aging affiliate, specializes in the planning and design for age-friendly communities, and has been studying the age friendliness of Manitoba towns and cities for years.

There’s an important distinction to be made between ‘community’ and ‘place’ when we talk about aging in rural Manitoba, he said.

“There’s a lot of towns in Manitoba where I’d say the communities are very age friendly,” he said.

“But the place isn’t. The people who live there are very supportive, but they’re helping each other live in a place that’s less than optimal if you really wanted to age well in those places.”

Milgrom spoke during a recent Centre on Aging research seminar in Winnipeg earlier this month, where he described research gathered through the Age Friendly Manitoba Initiative to document what Manitobans themselves say they need in their communities to age well.

A key need for those who either can’t or don’t want to drive, is for options to private vehicles. That’s where the community — volunteers and family — are stepping in because the place offers no alternative.

But that need also points to a larger problem. These places lack transit but it’s a need arising due to the way towns and cities are planned and built.

Transportation needs are key in all discussions about age friendliness, Milgrom said. In an interview he added that as the province pursues its carbon emission reduction strategy there needs to be much more emphasis placed on lessening reliance on individual vehicles.

From a planning perspective, what lack of transportation also points to is the way housing is located too far for people to walk where they want to go, and a widespread trend of commercial development creeping to the edges of towns.

Connie Newman, executive director for the Manitoba Association of Senior Centres said in an interview an issue older adults regularly raise is an absence of sidewalks, or the lamentable condition in some places.

“When people have to walk on busy roadways or even trunk highways that’s a huge safety issue,” she said.

(The CAA this spring has included sidewalks in its annual Worst Roads campaign asking Manitobans to vote on which stretches where they live need immediate attention.)

“Older people want to walk,” Newman said. “More of us are walking more than we ever did. It’s part of a healthy environment and a healthy community.”

But it’s one thing for small villages and towns to start changing the way they make planning decisions; it’s another to find resources to make these places more age friendly.

The Association of Manitoba Municipalities has recently flagged the need for more cash to implement provincial accessibility legislation and the municipal lobby group is also pushing for more support for regional and sustainable transit services for all residents, including those who must travel for medical reasons, and those with mobility issues.

Complicating everything is that these needs are arising within a context of rural depopulation, points out Milgrom. He shared maps during the seminar showing broad swathes of the province where older adults now outnumber other age groups too.

The other challenge is starting public discussions about broader, regional-scale needs, he said.

“People are likely to know their small town quite well, or their neighbourhood quite well,” he said. “They may not know the region and the amenities it has or could have as well.”

But if we don’t make the ‘place’ more supportive, it ultimately means having to choose between it and the ‘community’ we’d prefer.

That’s not really a choice, said Milgrom. “That’s forced relocation and doesn’t feel very good,” he said.

“So how are we going to support people who live in rural areas? There are all sorts of issues that are starting to come up. We need some sort of critical mass around these discussions.”

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