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The aging population will have a profound impact on all types of communities across Canada, but few municipalities are prepared to meet these challenges, says a new research report by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC).

The report says governments of all sizes must start preparations now to address demographic changes that will "transform our communities and significantly affect housing." It says balanced planning strategies, a full continuum of housing and service choices for seniors, and major changes to transportation requirements must be considered.

By 2036, nearly a quarter of the Canadian population will be seniors, compared with just over one-eighth in 2006. In the 1930s, only one in 20 people were seniors. The report says the number of those 80 years old or more will grow 112 per cent between 2006 and 2031. There will be almost 50 per cent more women than men 80 years old or more in 2031.

While most seniors prefer to "age in place," staying in their current home and community for as long as possible, many suburban and rural communities are not equipped with support services to allow this to happen.

"Most suburbs, built for the automobile, with low density, a prevalence of two-storey homes and limited access to social and support services and public transportation, will be a poor match for the needs of older people," says the report. Although four out of five Canadians live in urban centres, a higher proportion of seniors live in small urban centres and rural areas.

"Population aging will further increase the proportion of seniors in many small centres and rural communities, which could foster further outflow of young people as these communities increasingly become geared to seniors. This can create community concern about the population balance, economic growth and community vitality," says the report.

It says that in declining communities, "seniors might be the last to leave" because most won’t need to seek work. But that might create a buildup of older, low-income seniors, which will strain the municipality’s social services and health facilities.

The report was compiled using the results of several research studies and other demographic data. Project leaders were Luis Rodriguez and Brian Davidson of CMHC, and Tony Wellman was a consultant on the project.

It says that seniors must be actively involved in all planning decisions going forward. Those who ignore the voice of seniors do so at their peril, as the report notes that the political clout of seniors is growing. "Well over twice as many seniors as those 25 to 34 say they voted in the last federal, provincial and municipal elections. The voting strength of seniors will influence campaign platforms and decision-making at all levels. In particular, there will be more political pressure to allocate or re-allocate more resources to address the needs and priorities of older citizens," says the report.

It says municipalities may face the problem of increasing spending pressures at the same time that revenues are decreasing if there are few local job opportunities for young people. "In areas with a high concentration of low-income seniors, their options for raising property taxes are limited and may be politically unpopular. Maintaining a balanced population of younger and older people in communities could be one of the best strategies to sustain community prosperity."

The report says that communities need to look at population aging as a good thing; a positive force for community development and renewal. In the suburbs, for example, obsolete shopping centres could be revitalized by creating a mix of new housing and job opportunities for young people. Unused schools could be converted to recreational facilities that would include activities for all ages. Infill housing and renovations to existing housing stock could make the homes more accessible for seniors and those with disabilities.

"Communities need to develop plans to address an aging population, supported by local data and analysis," says the report. "Preparedness planning involves reviewing all services, facilities, programs, housing stock and infrastructure, in the light of population needs."

It says, "Our towns and cities will inevitably change in appearance and feel as a result of population aging. They will need to become more 'senior friendly’. Facilities will need to be modified to make them usable by seniors."

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