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Staying Young

Peachland Wellness Centre

As part of the Peachland Wellness Centre’s fitness program, Judy Wyper checks her pedometer on an early morning walk.

By 8 a.m. Beach Avenue is already busy with people walking along the 11 kilometres of gorgeous public waterfront that line the edge of Okanagan Lake. Bliss Bakery is open and living up to its name. Patrons are already enjoying their first cup of coffee, seated on the patio, soaking up the morning sun and exchanging pleasantries.

The youngsters – anyone under 25 – are still asleep. They won’t be up for hours. Meanwhile, the early crowd strides along the strand for a morning constitutional before the heat of the day. A few sport pedometers. They all have an informal but recognizable uniform – shortsleeved T-shirts, Bermuda shorts, blinding white socks, running shoes or sandals, topped off with sunglasses, a Tilley or ball cap, a deep tan, and invariably a big smile.

Welcome to Peachland – Seniors Capital of Canada.

This small city 25 kilometres south of Kelowna has about 5,000 residents. According to the 2006 census, 25 per cent of these are over the age of 65 (nationally, only one in seven Canadians is a senior citizen – still a record high 13 per cent of the total population). That makes Peachland one of the oldest towns in the nation.

It’s a combination of good weather and good genes that has turned Peachland into Palm Springs North. Aging boomers move here to retire, and those who live here want to stay. They’re attracted by the dry climate, a surfeit of golf in the summer, not too much snow in the winter, and the friendly familiarity of a small town.

This unique combination of geography and demography also makes Peachland the perfect Petri dish to study aging.

Inside a small, unassuming house on 5th Street, staff and volunteers at the Peachland Wellness Centre have just completed the second phase of an important research project that is helping seniors stay active, independent and in their homes longer. Vancouver Foundation is helping to support that project.

Wendy Howard and Olive Fielding are co-ordinators of the Aging in Place (AIP) project at the Peachland Wellness Centre. AIP is designed for seniors over the age of 70, and offers a variety of programs such as a morning coffee club, exercise and lunch programs, fall prevention workshops, art therapy, in-home meals, transportation services, grocery delivery, phone support, shopping assistance, and an intergenerational project with the local elementary school. All programs are offered at little or no cost to clients.

“AIP is a pilot project intended to help Peachland seniors remain independent in their own homes for as long as possible,” says Howard. “By linking seniors with volunteers, we help with daily living activities and provide social integration in the community.”

The first six months of the yearlong project were funded by the Union of B.C. Municipalities, and a $20,000 grant from Vancouver Foundation enabled the Wellness Centre to continue for another six months until May 2008, when the pilot project completed.

The findings were not surprising. Program participants reported dramatic improvements in their quality of life after attending AIP programs. Their health and fitness improved, and they felt safer in their homes and more connected to the community.

Ironically, even the AIP volunteers, many of whom were seniors themselves, reported improvements in their lives as well. By helping to transport program participants, deliver meals and offer workshops, volunteers stayed active in the community and felt more useful through their service to others.

“Seniors want to stay independent,” says Howard. “They want to stay in their home. If we can get someone to come in and help with cleaning or meals, and offer programs to keep them socially and physically active, then we can keep seniors over 70 healthier . . . This program saves health-care dollars and improves the quality of life for participants.

“Now that the Aging in Place pilot is over, we’re looking at ways to continue offering these support programs because they have demonstrated value. We’re also looking at the viability of more non-profit housing in the community.”

Interest in programs like Aging in Place will only increase as our population ages. According to the 2006 census, Canadians aged 55 to 64 are the fastest-growing demographic in the country, accounting for 3.7 million people. That’s a 28 per cent increase since the 2001 census.

Baby boomers are approaching retirement, and programs like Peachland Wellness Centre’s Aging in Place will become more important as a model for successful aging as we all explore the growing part of growing old. VF

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(Story written: 2008)

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