Opinion: A Yes vote is a vote for active aging

Opinion: A Yes vote is a vote for active aging

Re-posted from the Vancouver Sun, March 24th 2015

I had a compelling conversation not long ago with one of the more than 300,000 seniors living in Metro Vancouver. Until recently, this spirited 80-year-old gentleman had been functioning well in his home. Every day, he’d walk to an outdoor bench nearby to connect with people, enjoy the fresh air or just sit and watch the world go by.

One day he found the bench gone; it had been moved further away and he could no longer manage the walk. The disappearance of that bench initiated a downward spiral. He became completely sedentary, his health and well-being eventually deteriorating to the point at which he had to move to an assisted-living facility.

This was just a bench, but for one elderly man it was literally a lifeline.

His experience underlined for me the importance of voting Yes in the Translink plebescite, the importance of investing in a community that inspires and enables people to be active and to stay active, especially in light of changing demographics.

In less than 20 years, it’s estimated there will be nearly one million seniors 65 or older living in Metro Vancouver alone. Imagine Surrey, Burnaby and New Westminster populated entirely of seniors, some unable to drive and others needing walkers and mobility scooters.

It’s an astounding shift with enormous long-term social and public health implications. Providing adequate, healthy transportation options for today’s aging population — and tomorrow’s — just may be the most important health issue facing Metro Vancouver residents in our lifetime.

At the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, where our research focuses on active aging, the evidence is clear. We know the chances of remaining healthy for longer are related to reduced sedentary behaviours, moving more and to living in a healthy community, with accessible bus stops, frequent buses, protected bike paths, safe pedestrian walkways and plenty of benches and rest stops.

I’ve seen the pattern repeatedly. Active, independent seniors who lose the means to stay active — whether that means walking, cycling or using public transit — can very quickly become isolated, depressed and vulnerable to illness. The decline in their health can be swift and severe and, for too many, ends in residential care.

I’ve seen another pattern too. Given the means to stay active, seniors will take full advantage. In a recent study of physical activity in Metro Vancouver, for example, we were surprised to learn just how many people in their 60s and 70s living in the West End cycled.

That’s what happens when a community is designed to keep people moving. They move, stay connected and engaged and live longer, healthier lives.

A Yes win means more frequent all-day bus service; 80-per-cent more night bus service; sidewalk and street improvements at or near bus stops and train stations; 300 km of fully protected bike paths; and 30-per-cent more HandyDart service for those with specialized mobility needs.

Funded by the modest increase in sales tax, the mayors’ transportation plan is visionary and comprehensive. Seventy per cent of Metro Vancouver residents will be within five minutes of a well-maintained bus stop, with bus service every 15 minutes.

For many older adults in our communities, that means not being housebound. It means independence. It means continued engagement in a civic, social and community life and a vital connection to the human interactions necessary for health, well-being and quality of life.

There’s plenty riding on how we vote in this plebiscite. Vancouver is a stunningly beautiful place to live. Together, let’s make it a good place to grow up and grow old.

Dr. Heather McKay is a professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Family Practice, at UBC. She is also the director of the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility.