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How old is old? Depends who you ask; Canadian perceptions of aging in flux

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TORONTO - Ask Alan Wilson to define "old" and he answers with a hearty chuckle.

"It's just a number, it's how you feel," said Wilson, a spry 82-year-old who teaches line dancing classes at a seniors recreation centre in Peterborough, Ont.

Census 2011

"I had a heart attack 10 years ago and that didn't hold me back at all."

To Wilson and many of his friends, being old is a state of mind — one that Canada's increasingly active senior set is choosing to ignore as the leading edge of the baby boom reaches the traditional retirement age of 65.

So-called "elderly" Canadians are living longer, lingering on the job and resisting the rocking chair. And as Canada gets ready to run on grey power, the very concept of age is in flux, experts say.

So, it's a fair question: How old is old?

"The whole aspect of aging is changing," said Jerry Singleton, a professor who studies aging at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"Within society we've used parameters or definitions that were based on models set for individuals working in industrial models. Today, we have the majority of individuals working in knowledge based industries."

The ranks of those Canadians aged 65 or older grew by 14.1 per cent between 2006 and 2011, the latest census numbers show. Seniors accounted for 14.8 per cent of the population in 2011, up from 13.7 per cent five years earlier.

The number of people aged 60 to 64 grew at a rate of 29 per cent since the previous survey in 2006 — the fastest-growing age group in Canada. And the number of centenarians — people aged 100 or older — reached 5,825 last year, a whopping 25.7 per cent increase.

In the old days, said Singleton, a person's decision to retire was largely made by the government — people stopped working at a pre-determined, legally mandated age and lived shorter lives in retirement than they do now.

In 2012, the decision to retire is instead based on a person's own needs and desires — whether the resources are available to make the transition from the workforce to retirement, and whether there's a desire to actually stop working.

The shift towards later retirement is already underway.

Beginning in 2023, the federal government will gradually raise the eligible age for old age security to 67 from 65. Because the changes will be phased in over six years, anyone currently under the age of 54 will be impacted when the time comes.

Regardless of when people choose to retire, however, companies that see opportunity on the horizon are seizing on the changing face of "old."

Drugmakers, therapists, life coaches, physical fitness gurus, dietitians and all manner of consumer-goods manufacturers are reaching out to greying Canadians with a plethora of goods and services designed to help them age gracefully.

But as longevity increases, so too does the anxiety people feel about they day they truly are "old," experts say.

"The problem is the longer old age is stretched out in definition — old gets postponed later and later and later— the more anxiety there is about getting old," said Stephen Katz, a gerontologist at Trent University in Peterborough.

A concerted focus on promoting a healthy, active and young-at-heart lifestyle is a common thread among retirement communities across Canada. But the almost frenetic positivity that's so often on display can have a serious downside.

"If you do suffer any kind of health problems, serious ones, you have to leave," Katz said.

"In a way, retirement communities kind of marginalize aging at the same time that they celebrate it, because real, deep old age is not there. It goes somewhere else."

Those challenges are precisely the reason to invest in healthy aging policies, said Wendy Young, a professor at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L.

"Healthy aging isn't something that starts when you're 65 or 75; it really starts, according to Health Canada, right at birth," Young said.

"It's not just physical health, but it's also social health and mental health."

Every level of government in Canada understands that age-friendly communities are not the same as senior-friendly ones, she added — the point being that if a community can cater to older people, it can cater to everyone.

But regardless of where "old" begins, it poses a challenge when it does, said Young. Case in point: continuing access to diminishing health-care resources and a looming shortage of caregivers to help seniors who continue to live in their own homes.

The point at which those concerns become real-life realities is when a person can truly be considered "old," said Susan Eng, vice-president for advocacy at the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), Canada's leading seniors advocacy organization.

"Where the rubber hits the road is when old becomes a limitation," said Eng.

And rather than deny that true old age — with its eventual drawbacks — will hit them one day, it's vital that modern seniors embrace their aging, she added.

Canada's grey residents also represent a powerful voting block — a fact that's important to impress upon anyone who might feel that their advancing age is diminishing their impact on society.

"People have to realize that there is power in one's own identity and rejection of societal definitions of when you get to be put out to pasture," Eng said.

By pushing back against negative age stereotypes and clearly articulating their needs, she said seniors can live long, positive lives without clinging frantically to a traditional notions of youth.

"If you define your own identity and your needs and expectations, and that you're going to put your voting power behind it, who wouldn't want to join this group?"

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