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South Okanagan feels strain of demographic shift

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June 04, 2010

Out with the new and in with the old. The future of Canada is right here in Penticton and they are starting to get a little grey around the hairline or what’s left of it. New population numbers from Statistics Canada show that the boom that produced a staggering increase in babies from 1946 right into the early 1960s is about to have its last great affect on Canadian demographics. The baby-boomers are becoming seniors, and with our warm weather and lack of snow days attracting elderly people of means from across the country, B.C. is well ahead of the demographic curve.

StatsCan estimates that within two years seniors will outnumber children under 15 in B.C., a shift that is not expected to happen nationally until 2021. And by 2036, said the government agency’s report, the proportion of people in the province over age 65 will climb from 15 to 24 per cent while those aged 15 to 64 — basically, the working population — are expected to decline from 70 per cent to 60 per cent.

Here in the considerably warmer Okanagan-Similkameen, the wave has already reached shore.

As of the 2006 census, 26.3 per cent of the population in the regional district was over the age of 65, nearly double the number of those under 15 years old at 13.5 per cent. And only 60.2 per cent of the population were reported to be between 15 and 64 years old.

It is a reality that RDOS Area F director Michael Brydon says has significant implications for Penticton and its surrounding communities.

“I don’t know that any government has sort of wrapped its head around this yet,” said Brydon, who has a Ph.D. in commerce and business administration from the University of British Columbia.

“If you go back to the 1950s and ‘60s there was huge public investment in elementary schools. Then 15 years later there was huge investment in universities ... Then the baby boomers went kind of quiet for a couple years but now we are getting back to a situation where public investment is required again.

“We know it’s coming. The question is: How do we plan for it?”

Brydon said that community leaders need to look at everything from accessibility of transit systems to urban design.

“What kind of land-use planning is going to suit this demographic? It isn’t hobby farms out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It’s places like Red Wing that are extremely popular. Gated little communities with small-footprint homes and low or zero-maintenance yards. But we don’t have a lot of that in Penticton. We have big houses and we have condos. We need more smaller housing that is clustered with high density and close to amenities.”

Of course, the number one amenity baby-boomers will need access to as they get older will be health care.

“I joke that some day Carmi School is going to come down and the new hospital wing is going to replace it ... But that is the reality and that is one of the biggest (challenges) for the RDOS, is to raise money to expand Penticton Regional Hospital,” said Brydon.

But health care costs already swallow up much of governmental budgets — unsustainably some argue. So, with pressures to hold down or eliminate deficit spending, where is government going to find the money to pay for such capital expansion, particularly with a large portion of the population getting ready to leave the productive workforce?

“It is something that all towns have to deal with and being in Penticton we have to deal with it sooner and more severely,” said Brydon. Not just because the aging are already here, he said, but also because they are coming here from colder climates, such as Thunder Bay.

“What happens is that people pay taxes their whole lives in Thunder Bay but then when they retire, they move to Penticton. All of a sudden we need all sorts of amenities here for them without their tax money,” he said. “The (provincial and federal government) funding formulas do sort of work off numbers but we have to be in a position not only to deal with it but also to capitalize on it.”

Which brings up another strategic question: Should the district, accepting that they are coming here anyway, try to attract more seniors to the area and develop a retirement industry?

Last year, in an effort to get the question included on the agenda at the district’s yearly strategic planning meetings, Brydon produced two papers analyzing the region’s demographics, unearthing an “empirically untrue” general assumption regarding the Okanagan-Similkameen’s economy: that it is based on agriculture and tourism. Brydon found that pensions and investments account for more than a third of the income in the district while the combined wage income from farming, accommodation and food services was no more than 6.5 per cent of the regional total.

Furthermore, he said, investment income and pensions, especially government ones, are typically more reliable economic drivers than the other industries as they are generally not as negatively affected by economic cycles.

“We don’t know what we want to do right now but we know we have to do something,” said Brydon. “We can’t just do nothing and then go, ‘Wow, our hospital is overcrowded and our housing prices are too high.’

“Penticton really has to be thinking about this. There is no easy solution to the problem.”

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