Researcher Mary Ann Murphy is looking at how communities can improve the longevity and healthy lifestyles of an aging population - photo ©iStockphoto/kusma
UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 10 | Oct. 4, 2007
Okanagan Experience May Dispel Aging Time-Bomb Myth
By Bud Mortenson
How will Canadians cope with a rapidly aging population? We may do just fine, predicts Mary Ann Murphy, Assoc. Prof. of Sociology and Social Work at UBC Okanagan. For inspiration, she says, just look at British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley -- despite having Canada’s oldest populations, communities there are doing quite well.
“We are living to a longer old age and reaching it in better health than ever before,” she says. “This should be seen as a demographic triumph. Fears that health-care costs are a demographic time-bomb waiting to go off are greatly exaggerated.”
Aging -- as opposed to factors such as inflation, population growth, technology, pharmaceuticals and the cost of dying -- may represent only a modest fraction of the growth in health care spending, Murphy notes.
“The common story about Canada’s aging population is that we are a demographic time-bomb but the hidden story could explode that myth,” she says. “The Okanagan is the bellwether for Canada’s aging. If we are able to demonstrate to the rest of the country how the active, healthy lifestyle of many older adults in the Okanagan improves quality of life and longevity, and conserves health care resources.
“What the Okanagan can teach us is that communities can and do respond to both the challenges and the opportunities of an aging population,” Murphy says. “But, we will need to grapple with prevailing myths, plan ahead and make some important policy decisions.”
Statistics Canada’s July 2007 report on aging, A Portrait of Seniors in Canada: Age and Sex, confirms that the Okanagan has a senior population that the rest of Canada will not experience for another 20 years. The region’s largest city, Kelowna, has a senior population of 19 per cent -- the highest of all Canadian metropolitan areas with populations over 100,000. And, some of the smaller Okanagan towns and cities are already at 25 per cent of older adults, with median ages dramatically higher than the national figures.
Murphy works with an interdisciplinary team of UBC Okanagan gerontology, social work, nursing and geography researchers collaborating with the community to investigate the future of seniors’ health and housing in the District of Peachland, a municipality south of Kelowna. Twenty-five per cent of Peachland residents are over 65 years of age, and 41 per cent are over 55 years of age.
“It’s a community with a wealth of social capital and commitment to building community capacity for healthy aging,” says Murphy. “The Okanagan is well situated to disprove the time-bomb and other aging myths that depict growing older as a time of inevitable frailty, decline, and lost productivity, with seniors devoid of the ability to learn anything new or demonstrate competence.”
“As one Peachland senior told me,” Murphy says, “if experts really wanted to understand the secrets to a long and healthy life, they would look carefully at how Okanagan seniors are actually living and what they do with their time.”
Seniors in the Okanagan are among the most active, healthy and longest-lived seniors in Canada, Murphy points out. Supporting this health and vitality are a variety of recreation and cultural programs running in seniors’ centers, and active lifelong-learning organizations such as the Society for Learning in Retirement.
There’s also KickStart Kelowna, a five-year program established in 2005 focused on increasing levels of physical activity by 20 per cent by 2010. For those who are frail, Kelowna also has one of just two 24-hour palliative care outreach teams in Canada, and the region has some nationally innovative programs in areas such as falls prevention, integrated chronic disease management, and a planned Aboriginal primary health care clinic.
“This is not to say that we will not have health challenges,” she says. “Among these are the rising obesity rates for pockets of seniors which make disability rates hard to predict, a shortage of geriatricians, the prospective retirement of large proportions of nurses, major cuts to home support and home care that have not been cost-effective, waitlists, and issues with long-term-care bed supply and shifting burdens of care. The true looming issues are the policy choices and debates we need to have about how to focus spending in prevention and integrated services.”