For aging residents of rural Manitoba, there are few challenges that loom larger than transportation.
Consider the different realities of urban and rural seniors. For an urban senior, losing the ability to drive for themselves is still a cruel blow of aging, but it isn’t debilitating.
Options ranging from buses, traditional taxis and a plethora of ride-share apps can quickly take them where they need to go at a relatively affordable cost.
For the rural senior, losing that ability can mean being a virtual prisoner in their home community, reliant on the goodwill of friends and family, or paying high costs for sporadic service.
The needs of an aging population isolated from healthcare and shopping options have led the RM of Piney to consider public transit.
“Transportation is an issue for this area, just because we live a distance from Winnipeg and that’s where all the specialists are,” said Melanie Parent, a municipal councillor who works with seniors in the area.
COVID-19 has further restricted options by closing the border, which cuts off the community from Roseau, Minnesota — the closest hospital and shopping centre.
Large and empty
The RM of Piney encompasses about 2,400 square kilometres in the extreme southeast corner of the province. Its population is just over 1,700, according to 2016 census data.
About a quarter of these residents are over 65, well above the provincial average of 16 per cent. Many are low-income, Parent added.
A 2018 survey of age-friendliness in the RM showed residents were concerned about transportation. None of the residents surveyed said public transportation, including handi-van services, were affordable. Piney doesn’t have its own handi-van and relies on one in the neighbouring RM of Stuartburn.
Just five per cent of residents said public transportation to medical appointments was sufficient. Today, seniors can book a ride through Services to Seniors, which matches them with volunteer drivers.
Through a federal grant related to COVID-19, seniors can currently travel to medical appointments for free. Normally, passengers pay a per-kilometre fee of 35 cents, Parent said.
From Sprague, where Parent is based, it’s just over 100 km to the Steinbach, the nearest city. This would ring up a passenger at about $70 for a round trip.
“Which is a lot of money,” Parent said. If a specialist wasn’t available there, the next stop would be Winnipeg, which is 177 kms away, and would cost about $125.
Until about a decade ago, the area had reliable bus service through Grey Goose.
“When that stopped, that hurt,” she said.
Local consultant Connie Gamble, who was hired to evaluate transit plans by the RM, said she checked and it’s possible to get a taxi from Steinbach, but it would be cost-prohibitive. A trip by taxi to Steinbach would cost between $150 and $400, she said.
Most seniors in the area are very self-reliant — after all, in a community 100 km from the nearest city, people are used to driving, said Parent, but some have lost their licenses or independence. Others are afraid to drive into Winnipeg for appointments.
Gamble laid out the issue at a public meeting in Sprague on September 21, one of three on the topic.
One resident said while he and his wife are still able to drive, he anticipated a time when this won’t be an option.
With no kids, “I’m at the mercy of this or a friend,” he said.
Another resident said she knew someone who couldn’t get to the meeting because she didn’t have a ride.
However, those at the meeting worried that in an area as vast as Piney, there’d be no way to reach everyone or make it financially feasible.
They discussed every vehicle option from a sedan to a bus and speculated about adding a parcel pickup service or charter service to add revenue. They discussed having door-to-door pickup, and set routes for each day of the week.
The service won’t be exclusively for seniors. It also needn’t be run by the RM.
“Everything is on the table,” said Gamble.
Whatever happens, it will likely operate on a shoestring budget.
Gamble told the Steinbach newspaper The Carillon that financing it purely through user-pay was off the table. She also told The Carillon she hoped a defunct grant to help municipalities purchase handi-transit vans would be reinstated.
“Wherever we can scrape up money we can try,” Gamble told residents at the meeting.
“We don’t have any public regional transportation in this province, so it’s incredibly problematic with an aging population,” said Richard Milgrom, a professor of city planning at the University of Manitoba who has studied age-friendliness in communities.
“It’s going to become a more pressing problem,” he said.
Many areas of Manitoba are aging. Some are losing population, said Milgrom, and losing services as people go — services the older people need.
Some rural areas have lost emergency rooms. In late August, the province announced it would suspend diagnostic and emergency room services in Roblin and would reassign staff to Russell, about a 30-minute drive away, according to a report from CTV News.
This makes it harder for older people to stay in the community.
If they can’t get to appointments, “we’re losing them. They’re moving,” said Parent.
While this issue points toward a population shift — young to old, rural to urban — it also points to a mindset said Milgrom.
“In general, in our society we don’t value older adults very highly,” Milgrom said. “I think it’s actually, really a human rights issue.
In part, this is because those who have power, money and decision-making ability are often not seniors, Milgrom said.
“And people don’t like to think about aging,” he said.
“Everyone should have the right to a good quality of life,” he added. “Sometimes that requires allowing people to make choices about the sort of places that they want to live in, and that means providing them with some choices.”
In some cases, if a community is too far gone, this might mean giving seniors the option to move where they want.
There needs to be strong provincial support for areas that are disproportionately aging and losing population, he said. That support can no longer come from within the community because its losing taxpayers.