A MATTER OF CARE
It was warm under a cloudless sky, and the streets around the three sides of Victoria’s Inner Harbor were clogged with pedicabs, horsedrawn carriages, sightseeing buses and sweaty tourists clutching maps and youngsters and ice-cream cones. At city hall, seven blocks uptown, Mayor Gretchen Brewin sat in the noisy second-floor cafeteria eating a blueberry muffin and talking, not about the seasonal needs of tourists but about the year-round needs of old people with whom Victoria, the undeclared retirement capital of Canada, has had more experience than any community in the nation. “If big cities don’t begin to plan for increasing numbers of old people,” said the 48-year-old Ottawaborn mayor, “they are going to have horrendous problems.”
There are two main reasons for her concern. For one thing, the number of Canadians 65 and over is multiplying twice as fast as the general population. Statistics Canada reports that between 1981 and 2031, it will increase to six million, or 21 per cent of the total population, from 2.3 million, or 10 per cent. For another, Victoria, with one in four of its 65,000 residents already 65 or over, is a laboratory of the future because it is wrestling with challenges and attitudes that will gradually face major cities elsewhere in Canada early in the next century. That is why Victoria is such a useful example for the rest of the country in its future dealings with the problems of caring for the elderly. That is why Victoria is a city that vastly transcends merely passing or provincial concerns.
Kids: The elderly currently are outnumbered nationally by more than four to one by those 24 and under, but because of a falling birth rate, the declining immigration of young adults and longer life expectancy the over-65s are catching up. In Victoria they already have—with consequences that make the B.C. capital like no other city in Canada. Said Brewin: “We have to respond to kids who want to skateboard on the sidewalks and to seniors with frail bones who would just as soon the kids didn’t.” But the city administration, she concedes, faces far more complex problems that one day will test every major centre in the country:
• Avoiding confrontation. The migration of over-65s to Victoria from other parts of Canada began in earnest about 35 years ago. Now the city’s young and elderly are in roughly equal proportions. (Nationally, the percentages are 42 and 10.) Brewin pointed to a 1980 study by University of Toronto gerontologist Victor Marshall, who wrote that the increasing proportion of older people could lead to an “increased potential for generational conflict” fuelled by resentment at the rising cost of caring for the old. Said Brewin: “Learning how to live together takes a lot of patience.”
• Youth employment.
As more and more of the city’s resources are diverted to serving the elderly, said Brewin, the number of jobs outside the service industries steadily decreases. She added, “We somehow have to find enough exciting opportunities to keep our young people here.” But right now the nine-member city council is absorbed by the problems of youth, not its potential. Citizens have been complaining for months about gangs of teenagers, including prostitutes, who noisily roam Government, Douglas and other downtown streets nightly.
• Nursing homes. Victoria already has about eight times as many nursing homes and homes for the aged per capita as Toronto, five times as many as Montreal and nine times as many as Halifax. But it needs more to shelter the 10 per cent of those 65 and over who need some form of institutional care (page 54). Brewin said that it is becoming harder and harder to find locations for nursing homes that do not arouse opposition from other age groups in the neighborhood but are, at the same time, within walking distance of stores and bus stops.
• Education. People retiring in 1986 are better educated and more
demanding, said the mayor, adding that the University of Victoria “is going to have to move in that direction. It is now graduating 72-year-olds with master’s degrees, which is as it should be if we are going to have a complete society and a fair one.” However, the trend may provoke opposition from taxpayers “who resent having to subsidize the education of the retired.”
• Housing. Victoria was largely built up by the mid-1950s, said deputy city planning director Douglas Koch, so townhouses and apartment buildings began replacing single-family dwellings. But the newly retired people wanted one-storey houses with gardens, not apartments, said Koch. As a result, the city may be forced to permit smaller lots. Mayor Brewin said that the city should also consider
changing zoning restrictions to permit other alternatives, such as so-called “granny flats”—tiny, prefabricated oneor two-room units that can be put up in the backyard of a family residence to provide a home, and privacy, for elderly parents or grandparents.
The Ontario housing ministry is experimenting with 10 units, four each in Ottawa and Sudbury and two in Waterloo, but project spokesman Peter Cridland said in Toronto that the ministry still has not decided if—at $34,000 to $38,000 apiece, not counting transportation to the site—they “are cost-effective.” Brewin said the units would probably cost less to build and maintain in the milder climates of the East and West coasts.
• Political power. In 1980 Toronto author John Kettle, who specializes in studies of future trends, wrote in The
Big Generation that by 2026, half the Canadian electorate will be over 50. In Victoria that is already the case. Said Brewin: “Grey power is growing. People retiring today are in better health and have a lot of political smarts. They know what they want, and they lose no time in telling you what it is. If you ignore them in this town, you are absolutely in trouble, and politicians across the country had better realize that they are facing the same situation.”
Pub: One who readily agreed was Muriel Mixon, a 74-year-old retired librarian for the old Victoria Colonist and The Times. She sat in the white panelled living room of her house on Paddon Avenue in James Bay and recalled the time several years ago when someone applied to open a pub in the neighborhood. Said Mixon: “City coun-
cil came down to have preliminary hearings, and I think every old body in the place turned out. That was the end of that.” Mayor Brewin added: “A lot of people entertain this image of Grandma sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair with a blanket wrapped around her knees. Well, let me tell you: Grandma doesn’t do that any more. Today she’s downtown shopping for a trip to Hawaii.”
The rocking chair and the blanket belong to the mythology of old age, but that image is only part of the faulty perception of old age. Winnipeg sociologist Mark Novak, in his 1985 book, Successful Aging, listed these common myths about old people:
1. Most are sick and in nursing homes. Fact: only six per cent are.
2. Many are feebleminded. Fact: mental disturbance in old age is not normally caused by age itself but usu-
ally by disease. U.S. and British studies have shown that verbal comprehension, numerical skills and inductive reasoning often improve with age.
3. Aging makes people become more alike. Fact: the direct opposite—old age makes habits and personality more sharply defined.
4. Middle-aged children abandon their parents. Fact: more than twothirds of those aged 65 to 74 live in families with a spouse or unmarried children.
5. Old age brings physical decline. Fact: although muscular strength diminishes with age, most people can continue doing what they have always done, having sex included, into late old age.
For her part, Muriel Mixon declared: “If I had to strike at some group that creates these myths and creates difficulties for the elderly, it would be the advertisers who pester us with this idea that you must be beautiful, you must be sexy, you must be everything related to youth if you’re going to be ‘successful.’ Nobody has said out loud many, many times that we are all in the process of aging.”
The aged, wrote Novak, are surrounded by negative stereotypes, most of them untrue (page 58). Even so, he added: “The geriatric boom will reshape Canadian life. It will force us to rethink our ideas about retirement. It will make us change our assumptions about work, and it will demand economic planning and new services to meet the needs of an older population.”
Fact: In Victoria, Novak’s “geriatric boom” is a long-standing fact of life. It has dispelled much of the mythology of aging, raised questions about conventional retirement and the way society looks after old people who cannot look after themselves, and created an intensity of services unequalled anywhere in the country. Among them: off-street drop-in agencies for the elderly, which one day, experts say, will become as common across Canada as drop-in centres for itinerant youth were in the 1960s. Victoria has 14 drop-in and day care centres for old people compared with 28 for Metropolitan Toronto, which has 10 times the population. In
Ifact, Greater Victoria has a chain of them called Silver Threads, whose 3,300 members pay $16 a year for inhouse concerts, a games room, library, hot lunches and counselling for problems ranging from money to marriage and sex.
“Sure, sex,” said Silver Threads executive director Pauline Barker, 60. She sat in her office in the organization’s main centre on downtown Fisgard Street and hitched herself around in the chair behind her desk, favoring
a painful right hip, while she lit a cigarette, and said: “There is always the problem of one who has no desire for sex any more and the other one still wanting it. Once a woman in her 70s came in, and I was telling her about the programs we had. She kept asking if there were any men in them. Finally she said: ‘You always use the term companionship. I’m not out for com-
panionship. I want straight sex, that’s what I want.’ Old people do want sex, and for them to want it at 80 is not uncommon.”
Across the lobby from Barker’s office is the library that had a glass display case containing a yellow handknit infant’s bonnet, mittens and sweater for $20. For some reason, the same outfit in pale green sold for $14.
There were handmade crib blankets, dolls’ clothes and school book bags. They are a preoccupation of old age that may be disappearing. Explained Barker: “Now we are seeing a different type of older people. They have had more education, they have more money because of indexed company pensions, they have had better opportunities, and they want something short, sharp and interesting. They want to know about computers, about what’s going on in the world.” The changing face and mood of old age are apparent to Brewin, the politician, and Barker, the counsellor. They are also apparent to those who deliver services to the elderly. Geri Hinton is administrator of Fernwood Home Support Services which, based on ability to pay, charges from nothing to $10.35 an hour for such tasks as housecleaning and shopping. The 46year-old native of Thunder Bay, Ont., sipped iced tea in Tommy Tucker’s restaurant on Pandora Street and said: “We shouldn’t look at people who are over 65 any differently than we look at people under 65. We should look at them as either posing health problems or not posing health problems, as having accommodation problems or not having accommodation problems. Let’s quit focusing in on the aged as though they represented a disease.”
Home: For most of 1 Victoria’s over-65s, I growing old has been 5 anything but a disease. > Eighty per cent of them, I said Hinton, are living
1 independently with lit-
2 tie or no outside help. E An additional 10 per
cent are in institutions of one kind or another— two points higher than the national percentage—and 10 per cent are living at home with support services. It is that last group that Fernwood serves in a style pioneered in Sweden, which in the 1960s deployed an army of 50,000 helpers to mend, shop and houseclean, and was able to keep 100,000 old people in their own homes. Home care, said a 1976 report to the Science
Council of Canada, is “the most significant future development in healthcare delivery.”
And not all those who seem to need care should end up in nursing homes, Hinton said. “We have always had the idea that the aging process, once it occurs, isn’t regenerative, that there is nothing we can do. That’s just not true. What we are looking at now is rehabilitation. It is quite possible that older people, with changes in medication and an understanding of the
chemical imbalances and the changes in the senses that occur in later years, can have some of their independence restored.”
Study: But that will require study, and one thing that many old people in Victoria say that they do not want is to be studied. Hinton was director of the Victoria Institute of Gerontology, launched in 1983 by the Victoria General Hospital, the Victoria Gerontology Association and the University of Victoria to study old people and the aging process. It was an ambitious but shortlived experiment. Said Alderman Eric Simmons, the institute’s fund-raising chairman and, at 65, the city’s retired fire chief: “It was a dismal failure. It seemed to me that elderly people were saying to us: ‘Get lost, we don’t need you and we don’t want to be looked at.’ ”
However, the University of Victoria does offer a course on the sociology of aging, and Paul Baker is the 36-year-old
gerontologist who teaches it. Tanned and bearded, Baker sat in shorts and T-shirt on the verandah of his old house in Victoria, drinking a can of beer, and declared: “Let’s just deal with poor people or sick people or handicapped people. The old who are poor need the same things as the young poor. They need money, they need food banks, they need help with shelter and accommodation. But that hasn’t got anything to do with age. I have had old people say to me, ‘What
are you doing? You have a course in old people at the university? Haven’t you got something better to spend your money on?’ ”
Baker is equally outspoken on the subject of retirement: “How come at 65 you can say, ‘Goodbye, I’m not going to do it anymore’? We can learn a tremendous amount from old people but we expect too little of them. We should demand a lot from those who have something to give and reward them, too.” Scores of them are contributing—to each other. Fernwood’s Geri Hinton said that one of the “most innovative” agencies in town is called Seniors Serving Seniors. Over-65s have organized a self-help centre for people with problems ranging from loneliness to money and abuse. The agency’s growth, said Hinton, is partly a reflection of the new vigor among the retired.
Despite Victoria’s image as a haven for lawn bowlers and the place where people with white hair are perpetually
drinking afternoon tea in the hushed and vaulted lobby of the ivy-sheathed Empress hotel, it has lots of over-65s who agree with Baker about retirement. Said Alderman Simmons: “Everybody says, ‘I’ll be glad when it’s time to retire.’ What the hell, I didn’t want to retire. What’s important to people like me is that we need to be needed so we can go on and do things. Retirement for me is no paradise. It’s the enemy.”
Hiking: Arthur Hugh Murphy, otherwise known as Pat, a 72-year-old retired newspaper man, still writes for various periodicals, including Vancouver’s The Elder Statesman (The Newsmagazine of Modern Maturity). Murphy, wearing a beige golf shirt and slacks, sat in the bar of the Harbour Towers Hotel making wet circles on the table with his glass of ginger ale. Said Murphy: “There seems to be a general feeling abroad that after you reach the age of retirement you go into a state of mental retardation, that you suddenly become interested in silly singsongs but not in Bach, Chopin or Haydn. If you’re stupid at 70, you were probably stupid at 30. The old population is the same as the young population, and the sooner people realize it the better. You know, you go out into the hinterland around here and you’ll see all kinds of old people tramping through the woods and along the shore in hiking boots, staying out overnight. This is a place where people come to be alive. This is not a graveyard.”
But Victoria is a city where not all the over-65s can hike in the woods and for them Fernwood’s Hinton says that she wants the city to find something better than conventional homes for the aged. She suggested more buildings with individual apartments, a communal dining room for residents who do not want to bother cooking, a manager who visits each apartment daily to make sure the occupants are all right and an alarm system so that “if someone falls in the tub, they can get help in three minutes.”
Catch-up: Suggestions on how to improve the lot of the elderly are easy to find: more than three dozen organizations in Victoria offer services ranging from yoga classes to vacation planning (“War Bride Reunion Tours, featuring Vera Lynn”), but there is little co-ordination among the agencies. Said Mayor Brewin: “We’re always playing catch-up. Maybe we need a task force on aging to figure out more clearly where we go from here.” But the increasing self-assertiveness of the elderly points to the day when Victoria, and the rest of the country, will take their direction from task forces not on the elderly—but by them.
— RAE CORELLI in Victoria