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Peterborough, Ont., top choice for aging Canadians, focuses on senior services

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PETERBOROUGH, Ont. - As a rhythmic easy-listening staple sets the beat, Isabell Graham glides in graceful synchronicity with more than a dozen other elderly line dancers, all of them following in perfect time with their teacher's cryptic instructions.

For the folks at this seniors centre in the central Ontario city of Peterborough, Ont., line-dancing classes are a popular and regular fixture in their weekly routines, offering the opportunity to get some exercise and meet friends all at once.

These days, the dance floor feels pretty crowded.

"Everybody moving in is a senior now," chuckled Graham, 88, who moved to Peterborough 30 years ago to begin her retirement.

"There's so many seniors in Peterborough, pretty soon there won't be no young ones."

For Graham, the city's small-town feel, proximity to cottage country and laid-back pace made it the perfect destination. Three decades later, those same attributes — combined with an emphasis on improving services for seniors — are making the city a magnet for retirees.

The latest census figures from Statistics Canada show nearly one in five people in Peterborough was aged 65 or older in 2011 — 19.5 per cent, the highest ratio in the country among municipalities. Trois-Rivieres, Que., was next on the list at 19.4 per cent, followed by Kelowna, B.C., St. Catharines, Ont., and Victoria, B.C.

Among smaller communities, the Vancouver Island town of Parksville had the highest percentage of seniors at 38.6 per cent, followed by Elliot Lake, Ont., at 35.1 per cent. Cobourg, Ont., rounded out the list at 26.5 per cent.

The figures underlie concerns that linger in many aging Canadian communities: what's the best way to ensure the influx of older residents doesn't result in a mass exodus of the young?

Experts say a balance is possible if a community plays its cards right. And Peterborough is being watched very closely.

"We can be kind of a pioneer in showing that an aging population is nothing to be afraid of," said Jim Struthers, a professor of Canadian studies who examines the impact of aging from his perch at Peterborough's Trent University.

"We can actually show the way for innovation which will be necessary for the rest of the province and the rest of the country."

Ideas include more effective home-care policies to allow people to stay their homes longer and avoid expensive long-term care facilities, as well as making communities more "age-friendly" — accessible transit, a broad range of recreational facilities, and affordable housing for both buyers and renters.

Struthers likened the relatively rapid aging of a city like Peterborough to similar situations in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, where an older population has not diminished the innovative spirit.

"I think there's a stereotype that an aging society is a less dynamic society," said Struthers, 62. "I think it's dynamic in different ways."

That particular brand of dynamism can drive growth in a city's service sector, a shift already in motion in Peterborough, where the economy was once heavily dependent on manufacturing, he added.

"What people forget is that people over 65 pay taxes. In fact, they are a major source of consumption, a major source of demand that creates jobs for other people."

That demand is apparent in sectors ranging from health care and education to culture and recreation. Those over 65 are also staying the workforce longer, either part-time or in transitional employment roles, and contributing resources instead of draining them.

Still, many aging communities face challenges getting their younger residents to stay. Cities in eastern Canada in particular have in recent years been struggling to contain an exodus of young people heading west in search of work. More recently, cities in Quebec and Ontario, where manufacturing and commodities sectors have been hard hit, are falling victim to a mass exodus.

To help stanch the bleeding, older communities are working hard to capitalize on retiree-friendly business opportunities to keep greying towns from turning into empty shells.

One shining example is the one-time northern Ontario mining hub of Elliot Lake.

Styling itself as prime retirement territory, the town surrounded by sparkling lakes and pristine countryside has successfully lured seniors who are living longer and looking for cost-effective destinations where they can spend their savings.

"Elliot Lake has transformed from a doomed mining town to a booming grey town," said Stephen Katz, a Trent professor who studies the sociology of aging.

"Marketers have shown that older consumers spend probably more money on high consumer items than other age groups. If you can attract that kind of middle-class, healthy, prosperous retiree segment to your town, it's a real bump up economically."

Taking lessons from the Elliot Lake model, Peterborough is now trying to position itself as a crucible of opportunity for both young and old.

"We have been working with a number of different services in the community to make sure we have what an aging population would want," said Ken Doherty, director of community services for the city.

That growing aging population is not only made up of seniors who have the financial means to relocate to a retirement destination, but also includes those who choose Peterborough as their "last post" before they reach their senior years, said Doherty — a sign of some long-term planning on the part of those who move to the city.

There's also evidence that people who are still in the workforce are moving to Peterborough and choosing to bring their older parents along so they're better able to keep an eye on their loved ones.

The city has made establishing more affordable housing, quality regional health-care and accessible transit top priorities. It has also held "seniors summits" in recent years to help match the needs of older residents with service providers and even has a senior-specific section on the city website.

Wilma Galloway, 78, has noticed the changes.

"I've noticed in some of the shops, they're now catering a little more to our age ... and there's a few more dentists and a few more doctors," she said.

Galloway migrated to Peterborough from Toronto years ago and likes knowing that if she ever needs to move out of her home in the future, there are plenty of retirement facilities available in the city she loves.

The city also has community centres geared specifically towards seniors, an important part of daily life for older residents.

"I think the fellowship and the friendship here is the most important thing," Galloway said during one of her regular visits to the Mapleridge Recreation Centre.

"I have none of my children living here. So if I want to see them, I have to travel. If I don't want to travel, this is my family."

With a focus on age-friendly attributes, Canada's aging towns are gradually charting a course toward what some consider the ideal community.

"Communities that are better for older adults are often better for all of us, because they are more accommodating for a whole wide range of abilities — and sometimes disabilities," said Denise Cloutier, a professor at the University of Victoria's Centre for Aging.

"That's actually been a big push in Canada and around the world to look at what kind of things need to be in place for healthy adults."

Victoria, an idyllic city perched on the edge of B.C.'s Vancouver Island where some 18.4 per cent of the population was aged 65 or older in 2011, has long sought to appeal to both ends of the age spectrum.

Once derided as home to "the newly wed and the nearly dead," Victoria now cultivates a strong sense of belonging in all its residents, Cloutier said. "That is an interesting measure of how well young populations and older populations are integrated here."

Trouble, however, crops up when seniors age past the point where they’re able to care for themselves, she warned. Cities are still failing to provide community-based services for the most frail, such as keeping seniors in their homes as long as possible with the help of caregivers and out of expensive hospitals or long-term care facilities.

"We have to do a better job of providing a full continuum of care throughout the life course," Cloutier said.

"It's about being much more thoughtful about what we're going to need as we age."

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