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Aging in suburbia

Plan B podcast looks at how growing old in a suburb prevents unique barriers to an inclusive, social lifestyle

An aerial view of a suburban subdivision in the daytime.

Trish Hennessy

As I lean into middle age, the prospect of living in a mega city like Toronto is losing its appeal.

Things that have made it attractive—living in the Beaches neighbourhood, where I’m a short walk to grocery shopping and the beach boardwalk, and live car-free—increasingly compete with other considerations.

Like crowded subways, streetcars that short turn and leave you stranded in the cold, and the very high cost of housing.

For me, anyway, Toronto isn’t a place to age out in.

But is senior living any easier in a rural small town? Or in the suburbs?

In his latest Plan B podcast, host Ralph Benmergui goes deep on the question of aging in the suburbs. 

When you’re raising a family, that suburban promise of a castle of your own, maybe a pool in the backyard, definitely more privacy than chumps like me crammed into a 600 sq. ft. condo—Ralph calls condos “a closet for young people”—might be worth the trade-offs.

A longer commute into work. Neighbourhood roads without sidewalks. Having to jump into your car if you want anything—a carton of milk, a trip to the dentist, the kids’ soccer night.

But once the nest is empty and age hampers mobility, does car-dependent suburbia create social and physical barriers for elders?

Ralph dives into the issue with guest Samantha Biglieri, PhD candidate of Suburban Studies at the University of Waterloo School of Planning.

Samantha starts us off with a brief history of the rise of the suburb. Post-world war, in the 1950s, there was a growing need for housing and an appetite for the automobile, which was the symbol of freedom (and middle class status).

Planners behind suburbia created road patterns that made it hard to get in or get out of a suburban neighbourhood. It added to the exclusivity of suburbia, but does that lead to social exclusion—especially as we get older?

Samantha talks about the impact of “the built environment” on a person’s health. How we know that walking for physical activity can prevent illness. How loneliness can fuel higher rates of illness. And the importance of social interaction and social inclusion for the wellbeing of everyone, of all ages.

The ideal community setting is one that focuses on intergenerational interaction, Samantha says.  Like co-housing, where young and old share existing space.

Trish Hennessy is a senior communications strategist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the director of Think Upstream


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