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Calgary infrastructure ill-equipped to serve an aging population

Social work researcher Yeonjung Lee addresses cause for concern in Calgary’s aging neighbourhoods
Seniors Walking 1
Calgary's aging neighbourhoods concern for seniors who want to remain in their homes as long as possible. Photo: University of Calgary

Calgary’s exponential growth as a city over the past several decades may soon be outpaced by another metric — its rapidly increasing population of older adults. A recent study by University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work professor Dr. Yeonjung Lee, PhD, found more than three-quarters of the city’s 204 neighbourhoods are aging.

Citing existing literature along with her own research in the field, Lee said a substantial proportion of members of the “greying” population prefer to remain in their communities as opposed to transitioning to long-term care. She said there is a positive relationship between those who do so and their individual well-being.

“All the answers seniors expressed were like, ‘I would rather die than have to move to a nursing home.' But the infrastructure is not really ready for them to do that," said Lee.

Identifying Calgary's communities of concern

Addressing the issue is at the heart of Lee’s research project, “Community of Concern for Older Adults” (CoCOA.) Using civic census data, Lee’s team singled out aging communities and measured their accessibility to necessary services by means of walking and transit. In doing so, they identified eight communities of concern.

Six were established neighourhoods in the inner suburbs, constructed primarily in the 1960s and 70s: Shawnee Slopes, Maple Ridge, Point McKay, Parkland, Varsity, and Midnapore. Seton and Greenwood/Greenbriar, located in the outer suburbs, are still developing.

The latter pair of new communities fared well in terms of amenities and housing options. But given their physical location on the outer edges of Calgary, and the need for seniors to travel for other services such as medical appointments, access to reliable transit proved to be a potential issue.

Study shows lack of amenities for seniors

“The civic census data is more about the location of different resources and how far they are from their community,” Lee said. “But we wondered, what are seniors' actual perceptions and experience in terms of accessibility in their own community?”

Once the weather improves and more of the population becomes vaccinated, Lee aims to answer these questions using Photovoice methodology. Study participants will use photography — via a camera or cellphone — to record and reflect upon their experiences in their community. 

Study will inform planners and policy-makers

As the city finds itself actively debating what shape our communities should take, Lee’s input could not be more timely. She points out that this issue will only grow over time.

“We will see more people getting older, living longer… it’s not going the other way. Because of that, we need to do a lot of work to support them," she said.

Lee’s research is being supported, in part, by a gift from Grant Allen, who also created the Patricia Allen Memorial Graduate Scholarship honouring his late wife Patricia Allen (MSW ’69.) Patricia Allen was one of the faculty’s first grads and a passionate advocate and ally for seniors, who led the creation of Calgary’s Kerby Centre in 1972.

Article by Zoltan Varadi, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary