Learning from the past to decrease social isolation in the future- urban planning and older adults

ImageOn one of our seemingly endless summer days, the ASAP team conducted an on-camera interview with the Vice President of the Canadian Urban Institute, Glenn Miller. Calm, articulate, and with a sweet demeanor, Glenn was in town to speak at Infuse 2013, the Canadian Institute of Planners conference. We were interviewing him for a forthcoming documentary about the relationship between older adults, their neighbourhoods, and their health.  As a Peter Wall Solutions Initiative Intern, I was responsible for monitoring the audio as we filmed. I readied myself by propping up the boom mic with one arm and holding one side of my headphones against my face with the other. My eagerness to hear from an urban design pundit helped me to concentrate on Glenn Miller’s voice amidst the sounds of summer in Coal Harbour.

Glenn expressed that we “cannot make the same mistakes.” This refers to the development of urban environments that promote automobile dependency, rather than active transportation. One implication of this post-WWII dominant urban planning trend, is that — for reasons physical or financial – once individuals are no longer able to drive, they may be isolated from fundamental services. Relative to the environmental and economic impacts of automobile travel, the social outcomes of automobile dependency are ostensibly less understood.[i]

Glenn emphasized that many Canadian Seniors (individuals 65+) intend to stay in their long-time homes, or “age in place.” If you’re unfamiliar with the idea, ageing in place means individuals sustain their residence in the community, rather than in residential care, and have a higher level of independence.[ii] According to a study conducted by one of Canada’s national housing authorities, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 85% of adults over the age of 55 plan to live in their current homes for as long as possible.[iii] With Canadian seniors soon to represent a quarter of the population, there is an urgent need for strategies that ensure older adults have the supports they need to age in place healthily, and/or encourage the development of attractive alternatives to ‘suburban-style’ sprawl.[iv] The age of 70 stands as an average marker of reduced capacity to drive a car safely, rendering those in the later years of their 70s and their early 80s more or less stranded should they choose to continue to reside in neighbourhoods where a car functions as a pair of legs.[v]

Car travel’s impact on social life

This gap between the intentions of citizens and the provisions of our city landscapes led me to investigate the psychological and social factors which impact and are impacted by the need to get around without a vehicle. I found that the dominance of automobile travel has a significant impact on social life. Engels and Liu (2011) write that isolation from non-motorized and public transportation options results in social exclusion. [vi] Additionally, once no longer behind the wheel, former drivers are likely to suffer from depression, which is a springboard to negative health impacts. (Go HERE for more information )[vii]

A multiplicity of related terms are used to describe an inadequate social life, the main two being: loneliness, a subjective feeling, and social isolation, an objective state. Psychological factors are expressed directly by physical health. Feelings of loneliness have been related to an increase in the emergence of diabetes, emphysema, heart disease, hypertension and stroke.[viii] Loneliness can act as a precursor to institutionalization, the opposite of ageing in place.[ix]

Walking and social life

Intuitively, social participation and walking have been independently linked to lower rates of depression.[x] These two emotionally beneficial activities are intertwined: when access to a car is impaired, frequent walks outside offer the opportunity to engage in social interaction. A walk down the street can grow a general feeling of trust, generated by eye contact with other people.[xi] Individually, when walking is done often, the practice builds feelings of self-mastery and self-worth.[xii] Those positive reflections on the self actually serve a protective function in the body.[xiii] Together, the physical and emotional stimulation of frequent walks outside are expressed in a multitude of physical benefits of traveling car-free: reduced risk for heart disease (second to cancer in causing fatalities) and obesity, and increased overall physical fitness.[xiv]

Automobile dependency has the potential to significantly limit social contact.[xv] Through sharing the stories of older adults in different neighbourds, ASAP’s forthcoming documentary addresses issues of Canada’s ageing demographic, their social and physical health, and strategies for future urban planning. The team is grateful to feature Glenn Miller among a host of insightful interview subjects. As Canada’s baby-boomers lead the way into a new demographic trend, the hope is that the built environments in which we live will positively impact us, in body and mind.

The documentary will premiere at VanCity Theatre November 20th, 2013 (2:00 pm). For more information please contact Callista.haggis@hiphealth.ca

Blog by Kathryn Mandell, Peter Wall Solutions Initiative Intern


Boyce, C. (2010). Walkability, social inclusion and social isolation and street redesign. Built Environment, 36(4) 461-473.

Browning, C., Sims, J. (2012). Ageing without driving: keeping older people connected. In: Currie, G., Stanley, J., Stanley, J. (Eds.), No Way to Go: Transport and Social Disadvantage in Australian Communities. Monash University ePress, Clayton.

Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation & Canadian Urban Institute. (2012). Housing for older Canadians: the definitive guide to the over 55 market. Retrieved from: http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/odpub/pdf/67514.pdf

Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. (2008). Community Indicators for an Aging Population. Retrieved from: https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/odpub/pdf/66099.pdf?fr=1349968864671

Engels, B. & Liu, G. (2011). Social exclusion, location and transport disadvantage amongst non-driving seniors in a Melbourne municipality, Australia. Journal of Transport Geography, 19(4) 984-996.

Graham, J. (2013, May 1). Does depression contribute to dementia? The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/01/does-depression-contribute-to-dementia/?_r=0

Julien, D., Gauvin, L., Richard, L., Kestens, Y., and Payette, H. (2013).The role of social participation and walking in depression among older adults: results from the VoisiNuAge Study. Canadian Journal on Aging, 32(1) 1-12.

Lord, S. & Luxembourg, N. (2006). The mobility of elderly residents living in suburban territories: mobility experiences in Canada and France. Journal of Housing for the Elderly, 20(4) 103-121.

Medical Advisory Secretariat. (2008) Social isolation in community-dwelling seniors: an evidence-based

analysis. Ontario Health Technology Assessment Series, 8(5) 1-49.

Reynolds, C. Winters, M.R., Francis J. (2010). Active Transportation in Urban Areas: Exploring Health Benefits and Risks. Vancouver, B.C.: National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health.

Shlomo, S.B., Taubman-Ben-Ari, O. (2012). New grandparents’ mental health: the protective role of optimism, self-mastery, and social support. Journal of Family Social Work, 15(4) 254-271.

Tomaka, J., Thompson, S. & Palacios, R. (2006) The relation of social isolation, loneliness, and social support to disease outcomes among the elderly. Journal of Aging and Health, 18(3) 359-384.

Wiles, J., Leibing, A., Guberman, N., Reeve, J. & Allen, R. (2012). The Meaning of “Ageing in Place” to Older People. The Gerontologist, 52(3) 357-366.

[i] Browning & Sims, 2007, p. 1.1

[ii] Wiles, Leibeing, Guberman, Reeve & Allen, 2012, p. 357, from: Davey, Nana, de Joux, & Arcus, 2004, p. 133.

[iii] Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation & Canadian Urban Institute, 2012, p. 2.

[iv] Lord & Luxembourg, 2006, p. 103.

[v] Engels & Liu, 2011, p. 986, from: Browning and Sims, 2007; Burns, 1999; Foley et al., 2002; Rosenbloom, 2001.

[vi] Reynolds, Winters & Francis, 2010, p. 1.

[vii] Graham, 2013.

[viii] Tomaka, Thompson & Palacios, 2006, p. 376.

[ix] Medical Advisory Secretatiat, 2008, p. 9.

[x] Julien, Gauvin, Kestens & Payette, 2013.

[xi] Boyce, 2010, p. 461, from: Urry, 2003, p. 184

[xii] Julien et al, 2013, p. 2.

[xiii] Shlomo & Taubman-Ben-Ari, 2012, p.  255.

[xiv] Reynolds, Winters & Francis, 2010, p. 1.

[xv] Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 2008, p. 2.

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