Taking a second look at out of town life

By Mary Bart

The idea of stepping back from the hustle and bustle of the city life and moving to a smaller community may sound appealing. In fact, it’s one of the things on many people’s bucket list, but is it always the best thing to do when you’re over 60?

Small-town or country life offers a chance to return to family roots or explore a slower-paced, less expensive lifestyle surrounded by fresh country air, pretty landscapes, low crime rates and calm traffic. Many seeking such a life will also hope to become part of a close community with strong social ties and easy access to amenities and activities.

There are, however, challenges to adopting a rural lifestyle that can come as a bit of a surprise, especially when we are hitting our 70s and 80s. Potential isolation can cause some folks to reconsider their retirement dream. Poor accessibility, a scarcity of senior’s events and activities, infrequent public transportation, poor internet/cell coverage as well as a lack of infrastructure for medical care, specialist and homecare services.

Maclean’s magazine recently published several interesting articles about where to live and retire in Canada for the best quality of life. One of these looked at the 25 best communities for retirement, taking into consideration criteria such as access to healthcare services and public transportation. And while many of the major cities came out well, with Toronto ranked in the number one slot, some smaller and more rural communities were also featured.

But let’s get some first-hand perspectives from a few older adults living in rural communities.

Meet Eva and Richard

Eva and Richard are both in their early 70s and live in Smithers, a town in north-western British Columbia with a population of 10,600. It’s a 1.5-hour plane ride from Vancouver.

Until recently, the couple enjoyed the picture-perfect great outdoors and an active social life. Now, however, they are dealing with medical issues and becoming socially isolated in a way that they hadn’t anticipated because Richard has developed kidney disease and requires regular hemodialysis.

The local hospital cannot provide Richard’s treatment, so he takes a four-hour public bus ride to Prince George. Sometimes late appointments mean overnight stays at his own expense. Despite this, Richard is thankful for the bus service as his severe arthritis makes the drive difficult.

His wife Eva has recently retired and happily joined seniors swimming and lunch programs. However, on her way to the pool she fell and broke a hip. Again, the local hospital was only able to do the initial X-rays. After it was determined that she needed complex surgery, she was taken by ambulance to Prince Rupert, a four-hour drive away. Eva is now home, having rehab sessions and hoping to get a follow-up appointment with a visiting specialist who comes to town only four or five times a year.

However, she is frustrated, as her hip problems have really ruined her social life. Without a local scooter rental service her mobility is quite limited. And she worries about how much it will cost to plow the couple’s long driveway in the winter, if they can even find someone to do it.

Remembering last winter, when a rescue snowmobile with a stretcher was called out to take her neighbour Matt to a waiting ambulance, Eva is fretting as winter approaches. Matt had cancer and was travelling by plane to Kamloops for his complex treatments. (Kamloops is about a 9.5-hour drive or an hour’s plane ride away). Luckily Smithers has an airport, so air medevac services were available.

The couple also worries about how long they will be able to stay in their country home and have started to investigate options for seniors housing in town. Eva has discovered that their closest village has only 14 assisted-living residence beds, while the town’s care home has 60 beds and a variety of homecare services.

Meet Brenda and Mike

Brenda has recently moved from Toronto to Sundridge—a 1,000-person community three hours north—to help her brother Mike, who can no longer drive and needs to undergo cancer treatment. Although Brenda finds the area beautiful, she is hoping to stay for just a year. She’s surprised by the way Mike lives! He’s out of town, so he has a well and a septic tank. With no natural gas in the area, his primary heat source (to save on high electrical heating bills) is a wood-pellet stove—which needs to be fed five-pound bags of pellets on a regular basis.

Like many rural communities, Sundridge has no public transit, few taxis, no cable television or internet and cell services are spotty. Driving is a must, with trips into town being planned around getting mail from the post office and dropping all the garbage at the local dump.

Brenda has a heart condition, so it was a nasty shock to learn that not only is there a one-year waiting list to be accepted by the local GP, but there are 1,700 other individuals who have been doctor-less since last summer, when the only other local doctor closed his practice.

In the meantime, Brenda decides to drive back and forth to see her GTA specialists and family doctor (a 2.5-hour journey each way), and opts to visit a local nurse-practitioner or go to the hospital emergency room, which is about an hour away, when necessary.

Mike was directly impacted when his doctor left. Before the office closed, however, Mike was set up for his cancer treatments in Sudbury, a two-hour drive north. Brenda will drive, but she’s terrified of the need for regular long road trips through winter storms, black ice and blinding snow. She expects to get stuck and to have to cover the cost of overnight hotel stays.

While there are a few homecare nursing agencies in the area, they’re all pushed to their limits by geography, weather and an aging population. Going forward, Brenda expects Mike will have to relocate closer to a city for easier, less stressful access to care.

Meet Reyansh

Rayansh’s partner died of AIDS 20 years ago and since then he’s lived alone. After inheriting his mum’s house in 2001 he opted to move out of town and drive into the city for work. But, recently, after complications during eye surgery, his life began to change. Facing specialist appointments and ongoing medical care, the potential loss of his driver’s license, and the threat of losing his vision, Reyansh pro-actively changed his plans.  By renting a city condo he could keep working and access doctors and CNIB services. He’s got a spare room for friends who want to visit the “big city” and returns to  small town life on the train most weekends and holidays. So far, so good!

Not for the faint of heart

Aging in rural Canada is not for the faint of heart. It can turn the simple things in life, such as finding a doctor, cutting the grass and shopping for groceries, into death-defying feats at times. But there’s calm, neighbourly goodwill and the quiet life to make up for it. It’s also often less expensive, easier to grow your own food and, for the most part, crime rates are lower. 

Being organized, connected, resourceful and staying close to your neighbors seem to be key. But based on the experiences of Eva, Richard, Brenda and Mike, knowing when to fold your tent and move into a more medically-focused, age-friendly community might be in the cards for some of us.

Mary Bart is the chair of Caregiving Matters, an internet-based charity that offers education and support to family caregivers.

Is small town life for you?

Consider these important issues

Medical services: If you require specialty care, think again. Look for accessibility.

• Driving is key: Having a vehicle with four-wheel drive and snow tires is a must.

 Out and about: Consider volunteering, joining the choir, book club or fitness group.

• Establish a support network: Don’t go it alone. Nurture a reliable circle of friends.•

• Get organized: Consolidate trips. Buy in bulk and share with neighbours.

• Gardens and chickens: If you’re the type, plant your own organic garden.

• Landline and Internet: Opt for reliable service and good customer support.

• Services: Garbage may not be picked up and repair people hard to get. Can you do it yourself?

• Care at home: Is there a reputable agency to serve you or your family?

• Emergency readiness: Be aware that power outages and downed trees may reduce access to your home and cut off your electricity, heat and water supply. Have a generator, store canned foods and water, and keep flashlights and a first-aid kit on hand.

• Mail delivery: Mail will rarely be delivered, let alone Amazon parcels, Uber Eats or dry cleaning. Be prepared to make other arrangements.

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