10/29/2012 05:36 EDT | Updated 12/29/2012 05:12 EST

The Small Town Where Seniors Rule

Five years ago, Residents were leaving in droves and the town of Gladstone, Manitoba, made up in large part by seniors, was dying. Then, Gladstone Mayor Eileen Clark overhauled the town's planning strategy. Soon Gladstone had a new privately-funded housing project, an enhanced handi-transit service, and the building of an "age-friendly" walking trail, along with more community events and partnerships between organizations. Property values have increased exponentially


Five years ago, you could buy a plot of land in Gladstone, Manitoba for one dollar. Residents were leaving in droves and the town, made up in large part by seniors, was dying.

Businesses were moving into the cities, taking taxpayers with them. Many towns in rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan suffered with the same problems; issues that threatened their future existence.

"People had lost faith in our community. They didn't trust the future," Gladstone Mayor Eileen Clarke said. "It caused a lot of mental and emotional stresses."

But shortly after Clarke became mayor in 2006, the municipal council, along with its Age Friendly Committee, attended a workshop about the World Health Organization's new concept of "age-friendliness." The workshop was one aspect of the province's Age-Friendly Manitoba Initiative, aimed at making communities more liveable for seniors.

The mayor was inspired. She overhauled the town's planning strategy, held public consultations and formed a new vision for Gladstone. Soon Gladstone had a new privately-funded housing project with 17 apartments and suites, an enhanced handi-transit service, and the building of an "age-friendly" walking trail, along with more community events and partnerships between organizations.

A few years later, Gladstone's property values have increased exponentially and its population has grown by nearly 10 per cent. The town saw $9 million of commercial development in the first year after the changes, Clarke said.

"We have no properties left. We are working with a land owner to develop more properties and we can't do it fast enough," she said.

Clarke said younger people have also started moving back. "The last two, three years, many of our children who are married with children, they're moving back to our community."

Gladstone's mayor was a delegate at a Winnipeg conference this month, hosted by the University of Manitoba's Centre on Aging and co-sponsored by the Province of Manitoba's Seniors and Healthy Aging Secretariat. Entitled "Age-Friendly Rural and Remote Communities and Places," the event explored where our communities fall short of meeting seniors' needs and how to improve them.

Norma Drosdowech, a retiree and an advocate for seniors' issues, said the problem is often one of communication. "We go to the hospital and we come home and nobody says how was your experience?" she told a conference panel. Drosdowech said understanding seniors' needs is simple.

"You ask them to share with you their fears, their desires, their hopes and what's going wrong and right in their lives. It's really not complex. It's that we don't ask."

In rural remote communities, the challenges can be more complex. Bill Ashton, the Director of the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University, said these areas deal with extreme cold and a chronic lack of housing and transportation to areas with better services.

"Those get worse as you get out of the cities," he said.

Ashton said cash-strapped municipalities can't always fund major development projects but there are creative solutions. While speaking with First Nations communities recently, he learned of a program to prevent seniors from getting lonely. "Often, younger members of the community actually get assigned to visit elders," he said.

Proponents of age-friendly say it also has the potential to make our health care system more sustainable.

Jim Hamilton, the Associate Director of the Centre on Aging, says we underestimate the importance of social connection on physical and mental health, which is at least as important as physical activity and nutrition. He says hospitals and clinics are designed around treating those who are already sick, not keeping people healthy in the first place.

"My health doesn't come from my annual check-up with my doctor," Hamilton said. "My health comes from how well I'm connected to my community and my friends, and what I do in terms of social engagement, and my own physical activity and my own diet and nutrition."

Hamilton says libraries, arts councils, and local events all contribute to our health and it's time we started looking more closely at making sure those elements exist in our communities.

Lindsay Jolivet is an intern with the Evidence Network of Canadian Health Policy. Her work has been published in the Montreal Gazette, Huffington Post Canada and broadcast on the CBC.

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