Designing senior-friendly cities

Inspired by his mother, School of Planning professor works to make cities more senior-friendly

By Sam Toman

Faculty of Environment

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University of Waterloo School of Planning professor John Lewis and his mother DonnaProfessor John Lewis and his mother, Donna.

Over the past three years, University of Waterloo School of Planning professor John Lewis has interviewed countless elderly Waterloo residents about how the characteristics of their community directly affect their well-being. Shrinking budgets, decreased mobility, and increased health issues all conspire to make life increasingly challenging for seniors living in cities designed for young growing families.

Amongst all of Lewis’ extensive research and data, one voice in particular highlights these challenges; Donna Lewis — his mother.

 “She suffers from osteoarthritis and hypertension,” explains Lewis. “She has to get out of the region just to get the treatment she needs. Right now there is no service that provides that transportation.” As such, Lewis has to drive her himself.

Sadly, not everyone is lucky enough to have a son like John. That’s why he’s dedicated to working out solutions to the myriad of issues affecting an increasingly vulnerable segment of our population.

“We’ve planned cities for the better part of the last century for younger families with children,” says Lewis. “But as people age, large yards and large houses that are spatially removed from amenities, whether they are social, retail or recreational, become problematic.”

The problem is that many senior citizens prefer to stay in their homes where they likely raised families, have memories, and are most comfortable. But for some, driving to run errands is no longer an option, and walking can exact an untenable toll on their health. 

Moving closer to amenities is a possibility, but as Lewis notes, “housing affordability is the most significant concern that we have. As people retire, their incomes become fixed and it becomes more difficult to pay property taxes and to maintain their properties.”

In hopes of addressing this concern, as well as a host of others, Lewis has been interviewing and surveying senior residents for the City of Waterloo’s Mayor’s Advisory Committee for Age Friendly Cities. He’s also working with the Ontario Seniors Secretariat to develop province-wide guidelines for the development of age-friendly assessments and policies.

On a large scale, public transportation initiatives, such as increased frequency of bus service on selected routes can greatly improve the overall quality of life for our older residents. But change is not all about policies — small social shifts can also have a major impact.

“The common story I hear is that even though the transit system is clean and efficient and well-staffed, it is the staff themselves that may, on occasion, cause the greatest difficulty,” explains Lewis. “We have seniors who get on the bus and they may have mobility impairments, and before they even have a chance to seat themselves on the bus, the bus takes off.”

Thanks to research being done by Lewis, coupled with his dedication to engage policy makers at every level of government, all seniors (including Lewis’ mother) can feel safer, and have a better quality of life.