Lonely No More

Canadian seniors can live in a village community together without leaving their homes.

When I set out to meet with folks from my community the other night to discuss Oakville’s city planning and services, I wasn’t certain what to expect. But what I got was much more than I could have imagined.

The group, including investment bankers, an architect, a political candidate, entrepreneurs, academics and a journalist, met to attempt to address the state of isolated seniors in our community.

You might imagine that in a community as traditional and wealthy as Oakville, seniors would be better taken care of. Oakville, population 185,000 still likes to refer to itself as “the town”, and long time residents of the town recall when it was just that. But Oakville, like the rest of Canada has changed dramatically. It’s become a hard place to live for many seniors and our group has set itself the task of making it more friendly, accessible, affordable, and most importantly, less lonely.

The meeting was called because the new state-of-the-art Oakville Trafalgar Hospital is opening at the extreme north end of the town in December. The old hospital in south-east Oakville will be closed and demolished even though it’s surrounded by stately old homes, tree-lined streets, bus services and adjacent medical services that have built up for years around the long-standing hospital.

In its place, the town of Oakville has decided to erect a small seniors centre and a pool. The remainder of the land will probably be developed into expensive townhouses, condominiums and a few detached houses aimed at younger professionals looking for better prices than can be found in Toronto. My guess is that most of them will be commuters.

Our group is concerned about the town’s solution for the hospital lands. One federal political candidate, Che Marville, described how she was knocking on doors where single older adults were stuck alone in their homes. They hadn’t talked to anyone in days. They were desperately lonely.

Most of the seniors Marville visited want to remain in their homes, she reported. But for many the isolation is crushing and the alternative is worse. I don’t know anyone who isn’t terrified of ending up in a long- term care facility.

Our group is mulling over alternatives to help seniors stay in their homes or, at the very least, in this community. The architect at the table, who’s working on the renewal of Toronto’s waterfront, presented concepts for mixed housing in which there’s a neighbourhood square, ground-level shops and cafes: in other words somewhere for older folks to go, talk to people, enjoy cultural events. Think of it this way: an authentic community that is not so much monolithically designed as holistically curated.

As it stands now, Oakville’s once picturesque and vibrant downtown, only blocks from the old hospital, is slowly running out of steam. There’s fewer and fewer reasons to stroll downtown. A dozen storefronts are empty . Some say because of the high rents, but I believe the independently-owned shops have been ground down by years of cross-border shopping, big box stores and more recently online commerce. Oakville’s downtown, like many quaint main streets across Canada, is de-populating, and with it the older homes near the hospital, are about to become more isolated.

Another member of our group, a former investment banker, who has taken to teaching at the local college, has a different idea to try to fix the problem. His vision is to turn the old hospital into a world-class facility for elder research and care. A centre that would bring high tech solutions, medical science and new residents to the area while respecting the needs of the aging population living near the facility.

The concept of which I’m most fond is an experimental style community for seniors who want to stay in their homes, but who aren’t forced into isolation just to remain there. It doesn’t exclude mixed housing neighbourhoods or centres of medical excellence. It relies only on two things: community spirit and organization. And it could be tested in mature communities across Canada.

In fact, it’s already been tested in Boston and 170 other “villages” in urban U.S. where seniors are helping each other to remain in their homes by networking with peers .

This is how it works: Like- minded independent seniors meet and support each other so they can age in place. “They pool yearly membership fees to pay for a small staff that helps them find services like drivers, cleaners and handymen,” according to Susan McWhinney-Morse and 11 other seniors who founded Boston’s Beacon Hill Village in 2002 as a nonprofit. Today the village boasts 350 members.

“Beacon Hill Village members pay $675 per year ($975 for a couple) to access the seven staffers, who help them get services they need. About one in five area residents make below the median income, so from the start village cofounders have offered a discounted yearly membership ($125 solo or $175 per couple) to one-fifth of village members.

“We don’t provide any direct services,” said Laura Connors, the village’s executive director and its only full-time employee. “We help them figure out how we can make their lives easier. Do they need a ride back from the hospital? Someone to get groceries? Help with the computer, the TV? Help cleaning gutters? Businesses often give the village discounts for access to a loyal customer base.”

But many of the benefits of life in a village are less tangible—members say, above all, villages forge a sense of community. There are coffee groups, monthly lectures, trips to the theatre and other social gatherings and lively cultural pursuits.

Oakville would be the perfect place to experiment with a Beacon Hill networking village. It could become a prototype for others communities across Canada. It could be a live-saver for the elderly and the isolated.

Doesn’t this sound better than leaving home? I’m ready to sign up today.

I’d like to know your thoughts about starting this type of village in your community.  Share your comments below or email me at 

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