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Central West Ontario

Age-related Isolation in Urban-Rural Communities

The issue of isolation in relation to social and economic exclusion in urban and rural areas was a regular theme in roundtable discussions attended in 2002 by community partners from across Central West Ontario. Next, youth and seniors were identified as population groups most affected by an apparent breakdown of connections and social supports within communities. Go to the Community Vision for a discussion of community participants on these issues in December 2002.

In the first phase of the SEII, the Central-West Ontario Project involved three areas: Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk, Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambrdige-North Dumfries, covering a population of 527, 175 over 2475 square kilometres in cities, towns and rural areas. The three social planning councils in this large region collaborated in a careful balance between regional coordination and local relevance. The goal was to support at least one project in each of their local communities and to generate some region-wide learning about closing the distance between seniors and youth.

In the spring and summer months of 2003, the three SPCs organized and conducted over thirty "kitchen table talks" were held with groups of youth and seniors. This led to a greater understanding of issues and trends and provided and informed framework for action. Out of a joint workshop of seniors and youth from all three communities held in the Township of North Dumfries in November 2003, each of the three communities identified its local focus:

  • In Kitchener-Waterloo, seniors and youth decided to focus on the issue of accessing information and the barriers associated with it. They worked on developing an "information audit assessment" tool to promote clarity in the provision of community information about opportunities, services, and events in the community.
  • In Cambridge-North Dumfries, closing the distance was framed in terms of dispelling negative "age" stereotypes and creating better understanding between youth and seniors about each other. Seniors and youth were supported to create and perform community skits that challenged negative stereotypes about each other.
  • In Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk Counties, the local Social Planning Council is worked with young leaders in the disability movement, who were advocating for engagement in community life beyond concerns directly related needs of people with disabilities.

(See Case Studies for information on how to get the full story on the Closing the Distance Project in Central West Ontario during the first phase of the SEII)

Going Forward

The Cambridge-North Dumfries project is continuing in phase two of the Social and Economic Inclusion initiative. In a community forum held in April 2004 participants proposed youth and seniors working together and supporting a strong vibrant community. Youth continually identified that they had limited opportunities to participate in the community and they have a desire to be involved in planning and rural development. Seniors throughout this process identified a need for participation and acceptance of their knowledge and experience.

As facilitators of this "Closing the Distance" project the aims of this project is to engage youth and seniors in community decision-making through increased community capacity and community mobilization surrounding the isolation of youth and seniors. This project will result in a better infrastructure for youth and seniors and a stronger understanding of specific strengths and challenges faced by youth and seniors in North Dumfries. Youth and Seniors will have ways access to resources and services through the website. Moreover, the project offers voluntary organizations an opportunity to network and collaborate with each other.

Photos and Videos

Trudy Bealune, SPCKW ED, launching Central West Project
December 2002

(Right click and Save As..)
Low Res (2 MB)
High Res (4 MB)

Linda Terry, Cambridge-North Dumfries SPC President
reporting on plans for Central West Project, March 2003

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Melissa Kingdon, Project staff with Kitchener-Waterloo SPC,
October 2002 - August 2003 before returning to university

Mural of Central West Project created at All-Region
REFLECTIONS meeting in Waterloo, June 2003

Sanchari QuaderAngela PyeAndrew Terry
Cambridge-North Dumfries SPC research staff working on the Project

Trudy Beaulne, Executive Director of the Social Planning Council of Kitchener-Waterloo, and Susan Gow, Central West Project Coordinator, Phase 2 at the All-Region REFLECTIONS meeting, June 2003

SPC Executive Directors at an All-Region Workshop: Caroline Ball, Brant SPC, Trudy Beaulne, Kitchener-Waterloo SPC and Lamine Diallo, Cambridge-North Dumfries SPC

Doug Graham, Executive Director of West Elgin Community Health Centre, emphasizes a point at an All-Region REFELECTIONS Workshop

Linda Terry, SPC of Cambridge and North Dumfries, (right) facilitates a community workshop on negative stereotypes, March 2004.

Collage on negative stereotypes created by seniors and youth in Workshop.

The Central West Project has strong community participation from all its communities at the All-Region
REFLECTIONS meeting in Toronto, March 22, 2004

Patti Gibson and Brad Campbell of Voices Unlimited with the Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk community group
Craig Needles and Mary Ann Milsap with Cambridge-North community group
Chris Douglas and Susan Gow with Kitchener-Waterloo group

Community Vision (December 2002)

(In December 2002, about twenty community leaders from Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge-North Dumfries, and Brant County in central West Ontario came together to spend a day shaping a direction for a Closing the Distance Project. They focused on isolation among youth and seniors in urban and rural communities in the region. The following summarizes their discussion.)

We care about the growing sense of isolation that is occurring for many people in the urban and rural areas. In particular people who are in a transitional phase of life, those who are in their youth, teenagers and young adults, and those who are, or are moving into the elder phase of life. The changes that are occurring affect many other groups such as people with disabilities, families with children, people with mental health issues, people who are homeless or those who are at risk of becoming homeless. It seems that youth and seniors best exemplify what is occurring in the central west region of Ontario.

Isolation among youth in rural and urban areas.

There are issues that face youth in many places, such as a public perception that teenagers who gather in groups are trouble, and media perceptions of gang youth lead to a general sense of fear, causing young people to be discouraged from gathering in public places, such as streets, parks, stores, malls, etc.

But there are other changes that are occurring more uniquely in the Central West region. Much of the development in the area is the result of a growing number of people migrating from the Greater Toronto Area, particularly Toronto, Mississauga, and Brampton. Many of these people are commuters to their workplace in the GTA. They leave early in the morning and arrive home later at night, since commuter rush hour traffic is congested.

They have moved to the area for its lower costs and to get away from the urban/suburban busyness, but they are less available to the young people in the community where they live. Young people coming into their teens have grown up more on their own. There are fewer activities organized by adult volunteers.

People are selling their farms to developers and the physical and social infrastructure of the area is dissolving. Many churches and local community centres, in the smaller villages and hamlets, are closing. There are simply fewer places to go where activities are organized for youth.

Those places that are available are further away. To say the least, the public transportation system in the suburban and rural areas is inadequate. Teens have poor access to the places and the activities that may be available for their benefit.

The regon is one of the fastest growing areas for immigration. The cultural gaps that exist for young people of families that have recently immigrated only further isolate them as they become torn between family traditions and culture and the dominant culture of North American youth.

Isolation of Seniors

Changes to the region are having parallel isolating effects for people in the later transitional years that occur once people begin retirement .

In the countryside senior citizens who have farmed for much of their lives are experiencing and participating in a multitude of changes.

For most, their children have decided not to continue the farming life. Sons and daughters have moved away to seek out educational and employment opportunities in the more urban areas, some which are nearby and many who have moved to other regions. The longstanding tradition of rural family closeness has been shifting for many years now.

Faced with changing physical abilities, seniors are more often making decisions to sell the farming operation. Some are seeking to sell the entire farm, including their homes, and move into the centers of Brantford, Cambridge, and Kitchener-Waterloo, where they have closer proximity to health, retail and social services. This move is changing both the rural communities and the urban/suburban neighbourhoods.

In the rural areas, longstanding citizens are vacating the existing small communities. Communities that have been built upon a traditional farming lifestyle are now losing the tightly bonded social networks.

People from the GTA in their retirement years are buying up these homes in search of an idyllic lifestyle in pastoral settings. Even if they discover the peacefulness of the countryside, they have limited connections and social networks.

Those rural seniors who move into the urban/suburban neighbourhoods find themselves without the known social networks that they had developed in their farming years. They move into communities made up of commuters and discover a very loose and often fragmented community with no centre.

Many of those who stay in the rural countryside are women who outlive their husbands. In some instances these women find themselves alone with a dramatic change in their income making abilities, having depended on the production and management skills of their husbands. While these dependencies have been changing over the last few decades there are still those who have lived a traditional farming life and they experience dramatic losses after the death of a spouse, with no family nearby.

In the later years of life people find themselves meeting "the system" as health and finances decline. There is a growing fear of the ultimate "institutionalizing" that can occur for elderly citizens. These fears can be based in the growing costs of quality health and home care, or the costs of nursing homes, and the loss of control that takes over as people come to depend on strangers for the most basic of care.

For many, the "system" is very confusing and they choose not to interact with it and often this leads to isolation as they do not receive the services that would enable them stay active and connected to the broader community.

Add to all of this an increasing societal dependency on technological solutions to cost cutting in business and other services, and you will find many people experiencing greater frustration and a desire to simply stay home.

While some people selling off assets and downsizing homes find a "bubble" of increased wealth, these assets are quickly eaten up if extensive health care is required. Ultimately however many people will be living on a diminishing income as they move beyond their income generating years. As resources and health declines, people experience the same exclusion that poor people and people with disabilities have always experienced.

Common Factors that Contribute to the Growing Isolation

Similar conditions are affecting both the connectedness of seniors and youth. The city and villages that have been surrounded by agricultural lands, including the traditional Mennonite communities that farmed the land, are being transformed into suburban land developments populated with commuters and retirees seeking a lower cost and quieter lifestyle.

This development is being modelled after other suburban developments that are spread out and have few "centres" where communities can gather.

The new developments replace the old style communities, and the closings of churches, town halls and other community gather places affects the young and the old who have greater amounts of time to gather.

These new developments depend upon cars as the primary mode of transportation. Public transportation is poorly designed and is costly, prohibiting youth and seniors from an independent means of getting around that is not using a car.

The formal health, social, and community recreation systems have all been eroded in the age of cutbacks and downloading. As adults in the middle years of life are spending more time commuting to other communities to work, the formal system is left with fewer eyes, ears, and hands to respond to the needs of the young and old who remain in the community with time on their hands.

These new developments, which include the immigration of a widely diverse cultural base, leave the whole area with few established networks of relationships.

These dramatic changes will have great impact on other groups of people who find themselves on the edges of the mainstream. People with disabilities; people struggling with mental health issues; people that are poorly housed or homeless; poor families with young children; and members of the aboriginal community; are all impacted by a region that is in transition.

© Social Planning Network of Ontario