Why B.C. should be embracing the looming longevity economy

What if we embraced aging? The pressure to be ageist is all around us. We live in a youth-minded culture with false limitations imposed on older people and especially on women.

Older adults seldom appear in advertisements as the target market for fashion. The beauty industry covets a youthful appearance; anti-aging cosmetics and even age reversal surgery are the engines to combat the effects of growing older. However, more and more of that narrative is being challenged.

There are many examples of the shifting tides. A British Vogue cover recently featured 86-year-old Dame Judy Dench. Justine Bateman, former teen star of the NBC sitcom Family Ties, now 55, published Face: One Square Foot of Skin, a book proudly flaunting her naturally aging face.

Internet fashion icon Baddie Winkle, 92, has 2.7 million Facebook followers and is on a mission to discredit ageism by celebrating the physiques of older adults.

Locally, at the age of 83 Vancouverite Rod Waterlow became the oldest qualifier for the 2020 Boston marathon. Esther and Martin Kafer in their mid-eighties climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for the Alzheimer Society of BC.

Henry Martens, 95, and Etta Hellyer, 90, went skydiving to raise money for Tabor Village as part of an $11 million capital campaign to replace the outdated complex care buildings where both had family living.

At 92, Jim Pattison, chairman and CEO of the Jim Pattison Group and philanthropist, along with his administrative assistant Maureen Chant of nearly a half-century, have no plans to retire.

Not everyone will choose to work until the age of 92. Many will not be able to. Yet, we need as governments, businesses, technology companies, urban planners and others, to recognize aging society as an opportunity, rather than a deficit.

The coronavirus has had a devastating effect on many older adults and has underscored government policy inadequacies.

Government action is needed now to bring in new care supports and resources for older people. While one-third of people over 85 require care, most seniors will not experience life inside a care home. Thus, deeper work is needed to eliminate ageism and unconscious bias across government to ensure that services do not discriminate against older adults.

Workforce diversity and inclusivity must include older people, and every aspect of a business needs to be evaluated for its age friendliness.

A growing market is aging in place. A recent Leger survey for the National Institute on Aging and Telus Health found that 90% of Canadians intend to do everything they can to stay active and maintain their optimal health and independence as they age.

The home improvement market is expected to grow as older homeowners update their residences with ramps, handrails, grab bars, non-slip flooring, widened door widths to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs and even chairlifts to support mobility going up and down stairs. Home technology is another growing sector that will enable older people to age in their homes with wearables and motion sensors that activate lighting or are connected to personal emergency response systems with artificial intelligence to detect a fall.

The disability movement in the 1980s brought about curb cuts and accessible pedestrian audible signals for the visually impaired. Just as bike paths have replaced rail lines with greenways and narrowed streets and bridges with dedicated lanes for bicycles and pedestrians, the same transformative changes are needed to enable older people, who by 2030 will represent one in four Canadians, to continue to move unencumbered within cities.

Vancouver’s Yaletown House, built in the mid-1980s, is a stellar example of city planning that integrates specialized housing within communities.

Natural Occurring Retirement Communities will begin to challenge the concept of long-term care as older people find innovative ways to remain in their homes despite decreasing independence.

Perhaps Vancouver’s biggest assets are the thousands of laneway houses that could be a living option for older people who wish to stay in their community and enjoy the benefits of accumulated land equity.

Moving beyond ageist stereotypes of dependency and decline that discriminate against older people, the path forward to more inclusive government policies, businesses, cities and housing will place value on the lives of older adults. Your future self is waiting to enjoy the upside of aging. •

Dan Levitt is a gerontologist, educator and the executive director of Tabor Village in B.C.