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Small towns’ older citizens need new forms of transport

The growing number of mobility scooters in Morris is a glimpse of a future that 
will see Manitoba’s senior population triple in the next two decades

Morris is becoming something of a year-round Sturgis, that granddaddy of U.S. motorcycle rallies — except it’s power chairs and medical scooters, not Harleys, that everyone’s riding.

And now it’s got proper sidewalks for those who use the devices.

“We’ve got a lot of people riding them in town, probably anywhere from 40 to 50,” said town councillor, Bruce Third, who rides a mobility scooter himself.

“We wanted to improve the accessibility of the town.”

As part of the project upgrading Highway 75, the municipality reconstructed its sidewalks, making curb cuts and levelling rough patches not just along the main drag but also walkways on side streets in the older part of town.

The new six-foot-wide and smooth sidewalks will be a boon when the community hosts the 55-Plus Games next June. Although mobility-scooter racing won’t be an event in the games, which include everything from track-and-swim competitions to horseshoe and darts contests, better sidewalks were greatly needed, said Third.

Many residents, including Third, had harrowing experiences when they took their motorized chairs on the busy highway.

“It was scary and it was dangerous,” he said. “Now we’ve got a safe area that people can drive.”

The town is also adding more walking paths, all part of an effort to make the community more accessible for older residents, as well as children and other pedestrians.

Aging in Manitoba

Accessibility is a hot topic at forums and symposiums on aging being held in the province this month.

Accommodating the needs of older persons who are no longer able, or who don’t wish, to drive is part of an inescapable and not-so-distant future as Manitoba’s population ages. Today, those over age 65 make up about 14 per cent of the total population, but that number is expected to triple over the next two decades.

Smaller towns and villages, which already have higher percentages of older adults, will be even more in need of appropriate housing and other infrastructure that meets their needs.

The question of how to create these more “age-friendly” environments was front and centre at an international symposium on aging in rural and remote communities held in Winnipeg last week.

Transportation needs

Transportation and housing are critical issues in Manitoba right now, said Verena Menec, director for the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba and one of the presenters at the forum.

Older Manitobans desperately need more alternatives for getting around, both within their communities and region, she said.

“Communities are far apart,” said Menec. “How do people get around so they can access services?”

Innovative things are happening to provide transportation options, but much more is needed, experts say.

“We are not living in an age-friendly environment,” said Norma Drosdowech, a Winnipeg senior and a panel speaker at a public forum that opened last week’s symposium, which was attended by aging experts from around the world.

Manitoba is viewed as a global leader thanks to its Age-Friendly Manitoba Initiative, said Drosdowech. The initiative, launched four years ago, now encompasses 85 towns, villages, cities and rural municipalities. Most have advisory committees and are working with local government to set priorities.

“There’s been a lot happening,” said Drosdowech. “But I see it from a personal point of view.”

Many older adults remain exceedingly vulnerable and isolated in this province, lacking services or access to services, she said.

The problem is especially acute in smaller and more distant towns, said Gina Sylvestre, a University of Winnipeg geography professor, who has studied the links between social exclusion and a lack of public transportation in rural Manitoba.

“Those communities that are closer to Winnipeg and those that are larger and have economic vibrancy have more opportunities,” she said. “But when we talk about the capacity to promote an age-friendly approach, it becomes less and less the smaller the communities are.”

Manitoba badly needs better policies to address transportation needs of older adults in rural areas, Sylvestre said.

For example, handivan services are only licensed to serve those aged 55 and older, as well as persons with disabilities.

“In a rural community, you can’t just provide service for one segment of the population when you’re dealing with a small population,” said Sylvestre.

As well, Manitoba’s move this past summer to deregulate transportation services so private-sector carriers can enter the market is likely to decrease services to more thinly populated areas, said Sylvestre.

“So we’re now into an era where bus service is not being mandated anymore. That carries a lot of implications with it,” she said.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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