Grey matters: Stepping up efforts to help seniors with mobility issues


Back in the days before cellphones and Airbnb were commonplace, my husband and I would ask tourist information centres to recommend a place to sleep. One day, we cycled up to an info centre in southern Ontario only to find the town booked to the brim. The guide assured us we’d find accommodation just 10 minutes down the road. Not certain whether she noticed our riding gear, we asked “Is that 10 minutes by bike — or by car?” Oh by bike, she confidently replied.

Well, her “10 minutes” lasted almost an hour and ended in a ruddy great hill. At the end of what had already been a long, hot day, we learned a hard lesson: distance is relative. This is one aspect of the fundamental truth: we see the world through the lens of our own experiences.

This helps explain why so much of our world today, whether designed by (fit and active) city planners, built by corporate interests or impacted by our fellow citizens, doesn’t provide even minimally adequate support for frailer seniors and others with mobility issues. When our environment works for us, we are too often oblivious to how it fails others.

How else do we explain lights that turn yellow before our less-mobile neighbours have time to cross a road? Or city streets, even in walkable neighbourhoods, without benches or other resting spots. Often, people are housebound not because of how far they can walk, but by how far they can walk without resting or using a washroom.

Exercise is critical — it improves our mood and physical condition and may prevent, or slow the onset of, dementia. We should be doing everything in our power to make our cities walkable. But either city planners haven’t considered the realities of those who walk slower and rest more, or they simply don’t care. Neither explanation is acceptable.

Business and service providers have a key role to play, too.

As CARP member Barbara Aufgang recently said in an email: “I arrived at (Toronto Pearson International) Airport to take a flight to Phoenix. I stood in line to get through security for 75 minutes. At 75 years (old), that was a very long time to be on my feet and not have access to a washroom.”

I know other seniors who curtailed their travel because airports expect them to heft their own luggage through long lines, on to conveyor belts, into overhead bins and off carousels.

Aufgang wants airports to allow older Canadians access to priority lines currently reserved for those with special credit cards or other privileges. She argues that airports should have signs such as, “If you were born before 1946, you may use this line.”

What a great idea.

We individuals need to step it up, too. Opening doors and offering up our seat on the bus are classic ways to help.

Here are a few other situations where we might offer a hand:

— Lifting carry-on luggage on an airplane into the overhead bin or checked bags off the carousel on arrival

— Carrying groceries or other bags at shopping centres or going up or down stair

— Escorting slower walkers at intersections and ensuring traffic stops until they are safely across

— Offering cover under our umbrella (someone with a cane or walker is less likely to also manage an umbrella)

— Offering the space ahead of us in line at a grocery store, public washroom or event; or praising someone else who does.

And if you are someone who could use a bit of a hand, try asking for it, or maybe share this article by posting it on your Facebook page — or your fridge.

Wanda Morris is the VP of Advocacy for CARP, a 300,000 member national, non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for financial security, improved health care and freedom from ageism for Canadians as we age. Send questions to [email protected]. To join CARP or learn more, call 1-800-363-9736 or visit