Ottawa has formal infrastructure such as hospitals to help heal us if we are unwell. But ‘soft’ infrastructure – robust social connections and support – can prevent many problems and prolong lives. And we don’t need to wait for governments to provide that community boost.•It’s a familiar scene: An elderly neighbour falls, breaks her hip, and suddenly everything changes for her and the husband she cares for, who has Alzheimer’s. Fortunately for this lady, she has concerned neighbours, who rush to help.One takes her to the hospital, while others look after her husband. Over the next little while, this community, united by nothing more than neighbourly bonds, comes together to assist the elderly couple as they find their way back to a proper routine.This story, recounted by a panelist during an iGenOttawa event in June, may be similar to one you’ve lived through. People fall down, lose their jobs, experience illness or death in the family, or have their roof ripped out by a tornado. When these incidents happen, we gather and assist. Because that’s what a community is all about: looking out for one another. But what if there’s no fall, no freak storm, no death? Are we still there?One of the pillars of the Blue Zones philosophy, as described in Dan Buettner’s book of the same name about areas in the world where people live long and healthy lives, is that of the “right tribe.” Healthy social networks — the human-to-human kind, not the ones on your phone — favour healthy outcomes in populations.How do we encourage more involvement across groups that don’t necessarily have very much in common on the surface?This is great news if you already have such a network around you. But what about other people — immigrants or those who moved to Ottawa recently, those who feel isolated because their family lives somewhere else, those who have difficulty making friends, those who find themselves on the margins because of mental health or disabilities or language barriers? How do we encourage more involvement across groups that don’t necessarily have very much in common on the surface?Ottawa is a lovely tapestry of community groups – for example those that focus specifically on older adults. The city runs four senior centres, and lists about a dozen more that are run by the community, in French or English. It also offers 950 fitness and recreation activities geared towards older adults in 60 community facilities.Want to meet new people and try ukulele, pickleball or progressive bridge? There’s a drop-in schedule for that. Prefer a group visit to the museum or a wine degustation en français? Retraite en action has you covered. It could be doing more to be welcoming for some ethnic groups, as Amy Yee has argued in the Citizen, but there’s a lot on offer.
There are lots of ways for seniors to get active around Ottawa.
Former Chair of the Economic Council of Canada Judith Maxwell now works with Synapcity, an Ottawa non-profit that encourages civic participation. At the iGenOttawa panel, she made a crucial distinction between hard and soft infrastructure.Hard infrastructure means things like hospitals and medical personnel needed to help older residents in their later years. Soft infrastructure means “connections between people to make a difference in what goes on in the community.” And those are up to us.“There is a lot of potential for help in the community,” Maxwell added. But Ottawa is “not organized or prepared for what’s coming — a big generation of people at the end of their life.”As of the 2016 census, the proportion of Ottawa residents over the age of 65 was 15 per cent, and that’s expected to increase to more than one in five by 2031.Related
Maxwell pointed to an Australian initiative called HELP (Healthy End of Life Project). It’s expanding to Europe and, now, to Canada thanks to Carleton University and Compassionate Ottawa.As an example of real-life connections being created with HELP, a condo association in Vanier recently decided someone on each floor of the building would be responsible for keeping an eye on their neighbours and offering help when needed. Knowing who on your floor (or on your street) might need checking up on in the middle of a heat wave or during an extended power outage could make a significant difference in the life of a senior living alone. Why not do this all over Ottawa? We don’t need government to organize it, people.Real social networks may seem abstract and complicated, but they are in fact disarmingly simple. We don’t even require grand schemes and expensive programs. All we need to do is find ways to encourage people to talk to one another, listen to each other and just be there. It’s healthy for us, and for our community.Brigitte Pellerin is an Ottawa writer who wants this city to be the healthiest in Canada. This series appears on Tuesdays and Fridays.A snapshot of Ottawa’s seniors75: Percentage who live in urban areas. 18 per cent live in suburban areas (outside the Greenbelt). Another 8 per cent live in rural areas;65: Percentage of seniors who live with family members;25: Percentage of seniors who love alone. Older women are more than twice as likely as men to live alone;9: Percentage of seniors who live in an institutional setting. About half of these seniors are 85 years old and over; 58: Percentage of Ottawa seniors who are women.About half of seniors perceive their health to be very good or excellent and 73 per cent perceive their mental health as being very good or excellent.Source: City of Ottawa, A Portrait of Ottawa Older Adults
Things are going swimmingly for this senior.