Senior Toronto blog

September 30, 2017

Majority of one

She stares out the window, watching people pass by on the street. In a little while she’ll warm up some soup, then watch television. From time to time she casts a wistful glance at the telephone, which never rings.

It runs so deep in our culture, that image of the senior on her own, lonely and forgotten, a figure of pity and contempt. The older we get, the more likely we are to be on our own: for women over 65, it’s 33%. By the time we reach 85, it climbs to 43%. But our society tilts heavily in favour of marriage and family life: tax breaks, insurance benefits, travel, grocery packaging, entertainment, media, and on and on. So people on their own get short shrift.

But then along comes Statistics Canada with some startling news from the 2016 Census. For the first time in Canadian history, the number of one-person households has surpassed all other types of living situations. They accounted for 28.2 per cent of all households in 2016, more than the percentage of couples with children, couples without children, single-parent families, multiple family households and all other combinations of people living together. Living on your own is the new normal. But our cultural values and social arrangements haven’t caught up yet.

Ah, you say, but what about loneliness? What about belonging? What about quality of life? It turns out that a lot of the research has bought into the prevailing cultural values, assuming marriage and family life to be the norm, and equating solo living with loneliness. Discard those assumptions, and a new picture emerges. Here’s a sampling from some recent research:

  • Women who get married get fatter.
  • Women who have always been single have better overall health than currently married women.
  • People who have always been single are more attentive to friends, family and neighbors than people who are married.
  • Single people have a more diverse set of confidants than married people do.
  • Single people are more likely to volunteer for civic organizations than married people are.
  • Single people have less debt than married people do, even when the married people do not have kids.
  • Single people are less materialistic than married people are.
  • The more self-sufficient single people are, the less likely they are to experience negative emotions. For married people, the reverse is true: the more self-sufficient they are, the more likely they are to experience negative emotions.
  • Single people are more likely than married people to have regularly looked after someone who was sick or disabled or elderly, for at least three months.
  • Solitude brings many rewards to those who value it. People who are single, particularly those whose first choice is to be single, seem especially likely to value solitude and benefit from it.

This is not to devalue the very real challenges that seniors face who age on their own, or the pain of losing a long-time spouse. But don’t take on any excess baggage by buying into stereotypes and received ideas. Emotionally and intellectually, it’s richly rewarding to be alone. Take an inward journey.

August 29, 2017

Fun Guide follies

If you are a fairly fit, active senior who wants to stay that way, you probably have a date in early August marked in your calendar. That’s when the Parks Forestry and Recreation (PFR) Fun Guides get posted online, and you can start planning your fall and winter activities. When we were younger, many of us thought of the Fun Guides as one-stop shopping for fitness and recreation, but now that we’re seniors, how well do they stack up?

Suppose you have osteoporosis and want to find an osteo fitness class. PFR lets you search for programs by entering terms in a search box, but no matter how you word it – osteo fit, osteo fitness, osteofitness, bone – you get no hits. You can try drilling down through the listings instead, so you click on Fitness, and then what? Is it under Cardio? Muscle conditioning? Other? I eventually found it under Cardio – Older Adult. But if you don’t want to play guessing games, you may as well just download the Older Adult brochure for your district and scroll through until you find listings for what they call Osteo Fit. You’ll find some classes, but they’re pretty unevenly distributed. Lots of choice if you live in Etobicoke or Scarborough, but there’s only one location for all of North York, and three for Toronto / East York. If the locations or times aren’t convenient, what do you do now?

It turns out that there are lots of organizations that provide fitness, recreational and other programming for seniors, but aren’t listed in the Fun Guides, because they aren’t funded by PFR. Consider these:

  • Partially funded community centres. These ten community centres get some of their funding from the city, but not through PFR, and have to raise the rest themselves. Most of them have senior programs. Unlike the community centres in the Fun Guides, these have their own websites. You can find the list here, though this page doesn’t provide links to their websites.
  • Neighbourhood centres. These organizations try to build strong communities and promote social participation and inclusiveness. Seniors are a vulnerable group, so these centres offer programming for us. You can see the list of them here.
  • Community health centres. They take a broad view of health, looking at the social, economic and environmental factors that affect how healthy we are. So their senior programs include fitness and social activities, as well as health promotion and education and more. You can find a local one here.
  • Senior centres, of course. Actually, PFR runs seven senior centres, six in Etobicoke and one in Scarborough, so they’re in the Fun Guides, but most senior centres get their funding elsewhere. It’s tricky trying to get a list of the Toronto senior centres. The best way I could find is by going through the resource lists for the Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs). Torontonians might belong to any of five LHINs, so first find your LHIN, then click Seniors and then Seniors’ centres. These listings are maintained by a not-for-profit organization; it’s not a paid advertising directory. It’s pretty thorough, too.

Got a headache yet? Feeling a little dizzy? Frustrated? Exasperated? Well, there’s a cure for that. Come on over to Senior Toronto. In the site search box, type “osteo fitness” (without the quotes). Check out the 25 hits. Seven of them are not in the Fun Guides: two partially-funded community centres, one neighbourhood centre, one community health centre and three senior centres. Piece of cake. Senior Toronto is your one-stop shop.

July 30, 2017

The fine art of doing nothing

The Italians call it “il dolce far niente”, the sweet do-nothing, and they have perfected it down to a fine art. Not hard to get the hang of it when you can sip wine on a terrace in an ancient Tuscan town and gaze out over the valley all afternoon. It’s a little trickier over here, where we pride ourselves on how busy we are. But free time is one of the most precious gifts of retirement, and I think it’s worth learning how to enjoy the extravagance of wasting some of it. First, we have to tussle with some notions that our culture has ingrained in us: that we have to be useful, that we have to achieve goals, that time is money. If we’re tied to our gadgets, we have to set them aside for a while. We have to eliminate all distractions, everything that fills up our minds, including reading and listening to music. But no meditation either; we’re not trying to empty our minds. We’re going to let our minds drift.

I’m new at this myself, so I’m trying out some short experiences first. Once I get comfortable with those, I’m going to try longer ones. Here are some ideas:

  • Lie down outside somewhere. I dare you. Watch the clouds roll by.
  • If you have a dog, go to the park and play together. Roll around in the grass.
  • Find a bench. It’s especially fun to be sitting still when there’s a lot going on around you. Try the boardwalk along the Beach; a bus stop; Philosopher’s Walk; a local park where kids are playing baseball or skateboarding or romping through a splashpad.
  • Eat chocolate. It has to be good chocolate, of course. No gobbling. If you need lessons in savouring chocolate, you can get them here.
  • It’s hard to believe, but some people don’t like chocolate. So eat an orange; they’re delicious too. Don’t like to get your hands sticky? Eat it in the shower.
  • Take an afternoon nap. It doesn’t have to be long; 20 or 30 minutes will do. You’ll feel like a new person. Call it a siesta.
  • Try some purposeless walking.
  • Go to a cafe with an outdoor patio. Order a cold drink or a coffee. See how long you can make it last.
  • Take a bath. Add Epsom salts or bath oil or bubbles. Rubber ducky optional.
  • Take a long bus or streetcar or subway ride. Pick a route you don’t normally take. The streetcar routes are especially colourful, but you can have a good time just watching the people around you. Don’t stare.

June 30, 2017

Summer in the city

Retirement often feels to me like a permanent vacation. No bosses nipping at your heels, no impossible deadlines. Lots of deliciously slow, leisurely days. I rarely feel the urge to travel. But every once in a while, especially in the summer, I want a little break from my familiar routine. You too? Here are a few outings that can transport you to a different place and time, all for the price of a local transit ticket:

  • Allan Gardens Conservatory. Built in 1910, the Allan Gardens Conservatory is an elegant glass-domed gem, worth seeing in its own right. Inside you’ll find a permanent collection of exotic plants, and four seasonal flower shows a year. Admission free. On the south side of Carlton St between Jarvis St and Sherbourne St. From College subway station, take the 506 Carlton streetcar east to Jarvis St.
  • Black Creek Pioneer Village offers an opportunity to explore 19th century buildings, heritage-bred farm animals, and beautiful gardens. Admission $12 for seniors. At 1000 Murray Ross Parkway, near Jane St and Steeles Ave. From Finch subway station, take the Steeles 60 West bus to Murray Ross Parkway.
  • Islington Village Murals. Stroll along Dundas St West between Kipling Ave and Islington Ave and view the 26 murals that depict actual local people, places, and events from the early 1900s. Beautifully painted by professional artists along a lively stretch of Dundas West. Download the brochure from the website. From Islington subway station, walk north on Islington Ave a short distance to Dundas West.
  • Mount Pleasant Cemetery has one of the finest collections of almost every tree and shrub that can grow in eastern North America. Many are labelled so that you can easily identify them. Buried here are many prominent figures from 19th and 20th century Toronto, including Timothy Eaton, William Lyon MacKenzie King, Hart Massey, Egerton Ryerson, and Garfield Weston. Download the map from the website. Between Yonge St and Bayview Ave, and Moore Ave to Merton St. From St Clair subway station, walk north on Yonge St a short distance to the entrance.
  • Niagara Falls. On Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays in the summer, the GO train goes directly to Niagara Falls. It leaves Union Station at 9:00 am, and arrives in Niagara Falls at 11:05 am. Gawk at the falls, mingle with the tourists, eat fudge. If you don’t have a Presto card, ask for a senior day pass.
  • Patio by the Lake. Just sit, have a meal or a drink, enjoy the view, and pretend you’re in Muskoka. I’ve given you a link to a useful list that was compiled in 2016.
  • Port Credit. A lively, picturesque waterfront with a resort-town atmosphere. Enjoy the shops and restaurants along Lakeshore Road. Meander along the lakefront trails. Take the GO train to Port Credit; if you don’t have a Presto card, ask for a senior day pass. The waterfront is a short distance from the GO station.
  • Redpath Sugar Museum. The Redpath Sugar Refinery is one of the few remaining manufacturers on the Toronto waterfront. Their museum is a fascinating excursion into Toronto’s industrial history. Contact them in advance to arrange your visit. At 95 Queens Quay East, between Yonge St and Lower Jarvis St. From Pape subway station, take the 72 Pape bus southbound to the Queens Quay East at Lower Jarvis St West Side stop.
  • Riverdale Farm occupies 7.5 scenic acres along pathways through wooded areas, around ponds, and past flower and vegetable gardens on the edge of the Don Valley. It recreates an early 20th century Ontario farm in the heart of Cabbagetown. Admission free. At 201 Winchester St. From Castle Frank subway station, take the 65 Parliament St bus south to Winchester St, then walk east along Winchester St to the end.
  • Self-Guided Walking Tours. The City of Toronto lists about 40 on their website. They cover everything from history and architecture to ravines and the waterfront. Some offer online interactive versions. They all have downloadable printable guides. There’s something for everyone.

May 30, 2017

Seniors and scams

No question that we seniors are heavily targeted by scammers. Why are seniors so vulnerable to scams? Researchers, public institutions, and the media paint a grim picture. We’re in cognitive decline, we’re isolated and lonely, we’re too trusting, we can’t make sound decisions. They mean all of us, not just those with dementia. I’m not a researcher, and maybe I’m deluding myself, but that picture just feels all wrong. How could we become such idiots? How could a lifetime of experience living in the world, dealing with people, confronting scams, all get wiped right out?

Suppose we change the question. Which seniors are most vulnerable to scams? Now a different picture emerges. Turns out it’s older men who are risk-takers, men who see accumulating wealth as a key achievement in life, and who look for investment opportunities others don’t know about. Well, that makes sense. And online platforms make it easy for scammers to find those victims.

Suppose we broaden our perspective, and change the question again. Which people are most vulnerable to scams? Now things really get interesting. An analysis from the U.S.-based Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker reviewed over 30,000 reports of scams. Who do you think comes out on top? Surprise! Of those consumers reporting scams to BBB Scam Tracker, 89% of seniors (aged 65 and up) recognized the scam in time, while only 11% reported actually losing money. For those aged 18 - 24, however, more than three times as many failed to recognize the scam, and 34% reported losing money. Why millennials? They’re bigger risk-takers, they’re overconfident, they think they’re invulnerable. On the other hand, we seniors already know we’re being targeted. We’re probably less impulsive than younger consumers, and have likely already had some experience encountering scams.

It’s not too often that the stereotype of the scatterbrained, helpless senior gets turned on its head. Enjoy.

April 29, 2017

Eldersongs

When did you stop listening to pop music? It’s such a big deal when we’re young. That’s when it’s talking right to us, exploring all the joy and angst of youth and romance. Then we grow up, get on with our lives, and tune it out. It’s not talking to us anymore. And yet all the changes and emotions we experience as we age make for a rich, complex stew that seems like perfect material for songs. Wouldn’t you love to hear songs that speak to us about our lives again? The problem is, you pretty much have to get to old age to understand it, and there aren’t too many elderly songwriters around. Younger people are doing the songwriting, and when they do write about aging, they tend to fall back on stereotypes. Most of the songs are either overly sentimental or downright cruel. Anyway, I went digging to see what songs I could find that reach beyond the stereotypes, and capture some of the genuine experience of growing old, from the older person’s point of view. Here are a few songs that resonated with me:

  • Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arthritis blues. Written by a true sufferer.
  • Dave Evans, Be proud of the gray in your hair. Bluegrass classic. Get up and live your life; nobody else is going to do it for you.
  • Joni Mitchell, Both sides now. Joni Mitchell wrote and first recorded this insightful, poetic song as a young woman. “It’s life’s illusions I recall; I really don’t know life at all”, she admits. Many years later, with a lifetime of experience manifest in her now deep, husky voice, she recorded it again, and the message still holds true.
  • Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold, I remember it well. In this tender, nostalgic duet from Gigi, two former lovers sing about their last rendezvous, many years before. They have completely different memories of the occasion, but it hardly matters, as they look fondly into each other’s eyes.
  • Willie Nelson, It gets easier. The venerable Willie Nelson, age 83, celebrates the freedom that comes with growing old.
  • Tim McGraw, Live like you were dying. The title says it all: live life to the fullest.
  • Pete Seeger, My get up and go. This old chestnut is full of clichés and if this were a young performer I might have given it a pass. But it’s Pete Seeger, who kept on performing right into old age. He sings and plays this song with good humour and grace, and makes it his own.
  • Barry Manilow, Old friends. Stephen Sondheim’s tribute to friendships that have stood the test of time.
  • Frank Sinatra, September of my years. Time passes so quickly, but the past is full of sweet memories that warm up our September years.
  • Leonard Cohen, Steer your way. Really, I could have picked anything from Leonard Cohen’s extraordinary last album, You want it darker. He can feel his life drawing to a close, and probes those questions that have no easy answers: questions about love, faith, and death. His vision is dark, but not despairing. In this song, he stands up to the darkness with honesty and courage: “Steer your heart past the truth you believed in yesterday”.