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Age-friendly plan needs to jibe with dollars and sense

No one will disagree with the idea of making Woolwich a more welcoming place for seniors. Ditto for the concept of helping older residents stay in their homes longer.

It’s with that mindset that the township can accept the findings of the Age-Friendly Woolwich Advisory Committee. Accept, mind you. Not adopt.

Some of what’s including in the Age-Friendly Community Plan discussed this week by Woolwich council amounts to motherhood issues: talking points and platitudes with which no one disagrees. Where things get iffy, however, are with recommendations that are clearly beyond the township’s purview and/or involve increases in spending that simply can’t be justified.

On the topic of greater flexibility in housing, for example, some of that is already underway from a planning perspective, including greater latitude for so-called granny flats and the in-law suites. Greater accessibility has been mandated by the province. But changes to housing designs and amenities will be led primarily by the market: If there’s a demand, developers and builders will meet it. Given the shifting demographics, that’s likely to be the case.

The report highlights the aging population. Between the 2001 and 2011 census, for instance, the percentage of township residents 65 years of age or older grew to 15.1 per cent from 14 per cent. The Region of Waterloo’s growth forecast predicts the population of those over the age of 55 will hit 31.3 per cent within the next 15 years. Rural areas of the region are likely to age at a faster rate.

An aging population presents many challenges to government services, from federal health care and income assistance right through to municipal programming. Into that environment, it makes sense that residents will need a greater range of services and access to them. Smaller communities such as Woolwich just aren’t equipped for that, nor is it likely they’ll ever be.

Much as newcomers to the country end up in larger urban centres because they are a huge draw on social services, seniors will find disadvantages to staying in small communities. It’s not feasible for Woolwich to have the full range of offerings – from medical care to shopping amenities – that can be found in, say, Kitchener, which itself doesn’t have the resources of Toronto.

Where the report identifies input from residents about being able to walk to a grocery store, by way of example, that’s just not going to happen in places like Conestogo or Maryhill – the government isn’t going to get into the supermarket business. Delivery services, on the other hand, may become a more workable option as the market matures.

The report talks extensively about transportation. That is a challenge for those without a private vehicle. The public transit that does exist is underused and costly, so adding to the service to make it more useful to seniors isn’t a real option. Services such as Kiwanis Transit and the volunteer drivers arranged by agencies such as Community Care Concepts are already oversubscribed, but there is a limit on both subsidies and volunteerism.

By all means, solicit feedback about future needs, but resulting recommendations have to be tempered by the reality of what can actually be done, and how much money (i.e. almost none) is available for such things.

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