What’s Toronto doing for its aging population?

Originally published in the Toronto Star on August 11th, 2010. To go to the Toronto Star please click here

One of the fastest growing segments of the GTA is asking politicians, ahead of the municipal election, to take notice of its growing power — or else.

With more seniors forgoing the path of snowbirds and a demographic bulge working its way up, the percentage of people 65 and older in Toronto is growing quickly. In 2006, seniors accounted for more than 14 per cent of the city’s population, compared with just 7.8 per cent in 1961, according to Statistics Canada.

The demographic shift represents a new set of demands.

“We want to make Toronto a model age-friendly city,” says Susan Eng, vice president of the seniors association CARP.

On Wednesday, CARP hosted a Toronto mayoral candidates’ debate to highlight the issue.

Better pedestrian infrastructure, including walkable sidewalks and longer crosswalk signals, improved transit and centralized services are just some of the things seniors want.

Considering they have by far the best voter-turnout rates for municipal elections, a seniors voting bloc could swing the election.

Those seeking a city council seat in particular wards should take notice. Census data shows south and central Etobicoke, as well as areas close to the north-south subway loop, have high concentrations of seniors.

To accommodate the rapid growth of seniors in certain pockets, New York City recently installed extended crosswalk signals at some intersections.

Carol Libman, who lives in the Bayview and Steeles Aves. area, would like to see the same in Toronto. “I would personally like to see that. I’m 82 and I can get around. I would also like to see all those TTC escalators and elevators working.”

But many Torontonians don’t know about what the city has already done for seniors.

A spokesperson for Toronto Public Health mentions the city-run Vulnerable Adults and Seniors Injury Prevention Program, which offers access to services such as measuring canes and walkers for a proper fit.

The Toronto Public Library provides homebound residents with free book delivery and pick-up, and has similar programs in seniors’ homes.

And what about getting across those busy intersections?

“We began installing slower crosswalk signals in late 2008,” says Fiona Chapman, the city’s manager of pedestrian projects. Since then, 838 intersections have had crosswalk signals installed that use a slower walking rate of 1 metre per second, compared with the previous 1.2 metres a second.

When this is mentioned to Eng, she says: “Good. Now let’s see more of them.” Chapman says about 30 new signals are put in each year.

That move puts Toronto ahead of the curve. A spokesperson for Venice, Fla., whose average resident age of 69 makes it the second oldest town in the U.S., said extended crosswalk signals were only recently introduced there.

The former mayor of Boca Raton, Fla., Steven Abrams, who is the current Palm Beach County Commissioner, says Toronto is already doing what big cities need to adjust to.

“I’m from downtown Philadelphia. People, including a lot from your neck of the woods, aren’t retiring to Florida as much anymore. Big cities are getting older now and will have to do what we did in Boca.”