Opinion » Maxed Out

Fifty is the new 65



The first time I was offered a seniors' discount I was shocked. Since I frequently live in a world inside my head and lose track of such things as where I am, why I'm there, what I'm doing and what day it is, it wouldn't be unfair to say I'm easily shocked. But a seniors' discount?

Oh yeah, I was at a hardware store, looking for something I'm sure I'd have eventually remembered as I wandered aimlessly down the aisles. The young woman who asked me the question looked as if she might more reasonably belong behind a fast food counter so I'm sure I must have looked senior, if not ancient, to her.

"How old do I have to be to get a seniors' discount," I asked?

"50," she replied.

"Alright," I exclaimed! "I qualify."

I lied. I wasn't quite 50 yet. But I was willing to take advantage of her quasi-insulting offer, assuming I could remember what it was I wanted to buy and it cost enough to make a 15 per cent discount meaningful.

The second time I got a seniors' discount I was 50. It was on the cost of my house insurance. I'm wasn't sure why the insurance company thought I was less likely to burn down my house after living half a century but I suspect somewhere in the bowels of actuarial tables there's a column to prove people over 50 make fewer claims on house insurance. I happily took that offer too.

But I wasn't a senior. Not by my definition. And not by any definition that makes any sense.

Which is why I cringe every time I read that there are 2,000 or more seniors living in Whistler. Nonsense. Only under the most tortured definition of the word senior are there that many of us running around. And now that I'm legitimately knocking on the door of seniordom I find it even more offensive... and self-serving.

It popped up again last week in a column in The Question. It popped up at the Mature Action Committee's (MAC) town hall meeting in January. It makes me wonder why anyone who wants to have any credibility regarding seniors' issues would toss around bogus numbers based on someone reaching age 50 or 55 to inflate the importance or impact of what they're trying to accomplish.

According to The Question column, membership in MAC is, "... less than 300...." Said another way, membership in MAC is slightly over 200 since the real number is in the low 220s. My sieve-like memory seems to remember 222 or 223 but I know for a fact that number has been reduced by one since I've declined to renew my membership.

Before the torches and pitchforks come out in force, let me take this opportunity to sing the praises of Whistler's seniors. For some years now it seems like every task force, every open house, every budget meeting, every volunteer group I've attended, with the possible exception of the skate park design committee, has brought out the usual suspects — seniors and near-seniors. People with commitments to this community and a willingness to roll up their sleeves and do what's necessary to make Tiny Town a better place.

This is not to say attendance has been exclusively tilted toward an older age group but many of those meetings bear a stronger resemblance to après at Dusty's than the nightly lineup outside Tommy's. It's a fact of life that those of us with more mileage tend to have a heightened interest in giving back while we still have the time and ability to give. We have more time, we're more meddlesome, we like to know what's going on.

But there tends, also, to be a dark side to this activism. Organizations like the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, the American Association of Retired Persons and, yes, MAC, have, understandably, a narrow focus — advocating for seniors. Too often, it seems, in fulfilling that advocacy role the organizations' focus gets constrained and it loses sight of the bigger picture.

Seniors are but a subset of a larger society. It's not all about them, er, us. Just as it is not possible to meet all the needs of, say, children, adolescents, young families, single parents, the sandwich generation or any other group signing on to the social contract, it's not possible to meet all the needs of all the seniors in every location.

And therein lies the shaky foundation upon which the concept of aging in place tries to build itself.

The inconvenient truth is not everyone can age in every place. And more to the point, not everyone can age in this place.

For starters, Whistler is simply too small and the town's elderly population is way too small to have every service available in larger population centres. In the Canada Mr. Harper seems so bent on reshaping into something we won't recognize, governments and social service agencies strive to provide the broadest array of services to the broadest numbers of people. That often means services are only available on a regional basis.

With luck, Whistler will never grow large enough — and, yes, old enough — to warrant its own Hilltop House. Sadly, Whistler seniors who need that intensive level of care will have to leave the community. Happily, there often seems to be room there. And as regional demand grows, there is a very good chance regional supply will grow as well.

But there will be demand, and supply, of housing geared towards seniors in Whistler. The delicate balancing act will be, as it always is in this town, creating affordable seniors' housing, in conjunction with WHA, that won't simply be a financially lucrative retirement plan for seniors coming out of market housing. Unfortunately, recent developments geared toward seniors have left the concept of affordability in the dust. They'll meet the needs of those selling pricey market housing but will be of no value to many of the people who've grown old doing Whistler jobs at local wages.

In the meantime, there's an important role for MAC to play in advocating for those things that are both needed and deliverable in Whistler. It will take a sharper focus than what was evident at the town hall meeting in January where many of the "I wants" voiced by those in attendance already exist in one form or another and many others were simply absurd pipedreams. And it'll take working collaboratively, not confrontationally, with other groups in town who have to maintain a bigger-hat picture.

I have no doubt that's both possible and likely.