July 31, 2013
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This year brought with it the news that it was time for the citizens of Ottawa to review their Official Plan. This has to be done every five years and the review process must be completed by year-end. Local Community associations have sprung into action under the helpful leadership of the Federation of Community Associations, which has been gathering submissions and presenting information from each local group to the City of Ottawa Planning Department. The Council on Aging, of which I am a board member, has a mandate to see that the needs of our senior citizens are incorporated into our Official Plan. This is especially so for baby boomers who are still railing against the ravages of time with gymnasiums, bicycles and hiking boots. They will give a new dimension to the needs of our senior citizens because their own interests will need looking after as the largest single demographic group in the history of man moves noisily and happily towards the inevitable. A perfect illustration of this trend.

A perfect illustration of this trend is the World Health Organization's Global Age-Friendly Cities Project, which is meant to ensure that our cities implement changes that can accommodate the physical and social environments, which will be necessary for this group, and will comprise over 20 per cent of the population of the City of Ottawa by 2031.

The Age-Friendly Ottawa Community Action Plan developed by the Council on Aging has listed the priority issues as identified by seniors. As part of the Council on Aging's survey submission to the City of Ottawa's Planning Department, over 600 seniors in Ottawa were consulted in the fall of 2012 and these are their issues.

City-wide accessibility of buildings and outdoor spaces: Including maintenance of sidewalks, automatic doors, snow removal, more public benches, washrooms, better lighting and pedestrian safety.

Transportation: Increase allotted times for crossings at intersections, increase capacity and efficiency of OC Transpo, add more OC Transpo bus routes to areas with fewer links to popular destinations.

Housing: Increased offer of affordable and safe housing, with facilities designed or adapted to meet the needs of residents with disabilities and limited mobility who want to age at home.

Communication and information: Don't move to paperless environment too fast! Make use of all communication channels and develop Internet and computer skills – make it possible to get the right information at the right time.

Social participation: Make participating in activities more affordable and accessible to older adults.

Civic participation, volunteerism and employment: Provide more meaningful opportunities and flexible conditions for paid and unpaid work.

Community support and health services: Increase health promotion and home supports for older adults and their caregivers. Help the most vulnerable navigate the complex system – help provide the continuum of care as health conditions change.

Respect and social inclusion: Remove barriers that cause social exclusion and isolation. Fight ageism by honouring the great contributions of older adults to community life.

(These were submissions assembled by Dominique Paris-MacKay on behalf of the Council on Aging, for which I thank her.)

The fortuitous arrival of the review of Ottawa's Official Plan is the perfect platform to incorporate the needs of our senior citizens into the city's planning process. We can now build into our infrastructure not only the physical changes which are needed to adapt to an aging population, such as better construction and maintenance of sidewalks and better pedestrian safety signals at intersections, but also the social changes, which will include older people in a visible way as productive and helpful contributors to our community.

One of the issues having a serious impact upon our senior citizens is the lack of readily accessible transportation as the City of Ottawa extends is geographical reach into the countryside. As a professional person with an office in the downtown core, this dilemma is quite real on a daily basis. As I practice in the area of Elder Law, the fact that my office is located in a busy part of the core is a significant problem for my clients. Despite the fact that many seniors retain their driver's licenses until well into their 80s, they have a determined reluctance to drive into the city, especially on weekdays and there is always the problem of finding a parking space which does not cost more than the price of a hearty lunch.

I have had to become familiar with bus routes following the transit way, which pass through the centre of the city beside our building, so that I can give helpful advice on the best bus to catch. But I do not find myself doing this very often because it seems that either my clients ride the buses regularly and they know how to find me, or they never have and never will. I have actually had clients refuse to seek my advice because they say – I can't get in to see you unless I can get someone to drive." When I suggest the bus, I learn that they have never actually ridden a bus before in their lives.

In order for public transit to succeed as a primary means of transportation, there has to be a new paradigm in thinking about taking a bus or train as opposed to a car into the city because I am sad to say that my experience is that some of my elderly clients will simply not take care of their business as they should, or get themselves to their appointments for dental or medical services unless they can reach the offices of their professional advisors easily by car.

The Age-Friendly Ottawa Program, once implemented, must reassure seniors as to their personal security as well as the convenience and relative low cost of public transit compared to the use of their automobiles.

In most major cities in Europe, the regular use of public transit has become accepted out of necessity because of the fact that most of these cities are being clogged by vehicular traffic.

On a trip to Switzerland a couple of years ago, I was fascinated by a Swiss family who got on my train in Bern – three generations in all, grandparents, parents and children, each of them all geared up for hiking in the mountains. They later got off the train at Murren, which is a station in the mountains, and wandered off up the trail together. Of course, we have huge distances to cover in Canada between sparsely populated areas, especially in the City of Ottawa, which covers one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. However, it was gratifying to see how all three generations of the Swiss family had abandoned the automobile for a recreational trip to the country together.

Our transit system simply does not have the reach and frequency necessary to attract new users. So what we need to have is a system that is physically proximate and accessible to the residents of Ottawa, together with the creation of an obvious sense of security for travel with brightly lit shelters and clean vehicles. We may have trouble convincing the present generation of senior citizens who do not use public transit to convert, bur it is absolutely essential to convert younger passengers to use transit so that these habits will be carried into their senior years.

You should contact your local community association so that your needs and the needs of older adults are represented to the city. This can be something as simple as more frequently cleaning sidewalks in winter or ensuring that new housing developments, as well as older ones, have well lit and secure routes to the nearest transit access. Through the efforts of groups such as Age-Friendly Ottawa, we have kneel-down buses available throughout the city, which are wonderful innovations, but you still have to get from your residence to the bus stop in order to use this service.

If we are to welcome our rural neighbours, the service available to them has to become more than a commuter route to downtown Ottawa. Many services are available in the rural villages around Ottawa as they evolve, but the transit service must allow older adults in these communities to attend to their needs by enabling them to travel routes between these rural communities as well as into the city.

I expect the boomers will do a good job for their age group and perhaps the one following them, but protecting and enhancing the lives of our senior citizens is everybody's job.

John Johnson is a partner with the law firm of Nelligan O'Brien Payne (www.nelligan.ca) with offices in Ottawa, Kingston, Vankleek Hill and Alexandria.

[This article originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Fifty-Five Plus Magazine.]

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2017 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.