ARCHIVED: Section II: Highlights of Focus Group Discussions: Age-Friendly Rural and Remote Communities: A Guide – Civic participation and employment opportunities


7. Civic Participation and Employment Opportunities

Seniors have a great variety of skills, knowledge and time to contribute to their communities in a range of areas, including civic participation, volunteer activities and paid employment. Their participation is linked not only to the economic prosperity and viability of their communities, but also to maintaining their own mental and physical health, and social connectedness.

The focus group discussions revealed that many seniors are involved in civic activities. Many participants said they were serving (or had served) on town councils, committees and boards, an indication that political participation and civic responsibility are important to many older persons. Few barriers to seniors’ involvement in civic activities were identified in the discussions—although some expressed concern that participation in civic activities by younger people was inadequate, possibly due to their work schedules.

In many focus groups, the older adults and service providers focused the discussion on the very important role that volunteering plays in the life of individual older persons and to the community. Many talked about how personally fulfilling it is to make a contribution to society through volunteering.

“This town would collapse without the volunteers.”

“In the last couple of years, 90% of our volunteers were seniors.”

“I think the seniors make the wheels go round because I would say—I would not say exclusively—but the largest bulk of volunteers across the board are for the most part the seniors. Very, very dedicated volunteers.”

Volunteer activity was identified as important in keeping older people active, included and involved. Their volunteer work is also seen as paramount to a community’s well-being, particularly as many of the volunteer services delivered by older people provide support to other older persons. At the same time, seniors’ volunteer work is not restricted to the older demographic group. Their involvement in schools and sports also means that older persons actively support all age groups. Indeed, some people in rural and remote communities reflected that their communities are held together by the efforts of volunteers—most of whom are older persons.

There was some indication from focus group members that older persons like to be invited to participate as volunteers, and that they felt validated when somebody calls them up and asked them to do something that the community knows they are good at—such as cooking at a pancake breakfast, or raising funds.

Issues related to accessibility and accommodation were cited as important to older volunteers. Evidence suggests that people who have physical challenges can make meaningful contributions in ways that will be comfortable for them—for example, selling tickets (while seated) or by helping with school-related telephone safety programs.

"I volunteered a great amount actually and hadn’t really stopped until lately when I just ran out of steam."

“Because you know you get the same volunteers doing everything in a small community so that you get worn out.”

“Being a volunteer in this town, I think volunteers are getting tired, let's put it that way. Because, you know, we are very well used.”

Some of the barriers to volunteering mentioned by participants include those related to lack of transportation, to the distance of volunteer activities from home, and to the need for a long-term commitment that may interfere with personal plans (such as travelling). Nevertheless, such barriers do not seem to discourage many seniors from volunteering in some capacity.

Discussions suggest that because older people step up to volunteer (or are continually called upon to provide volunteer services) individuals and organizations are beginning to feel worn down. At the same time, a number of participants felt that opportunities to contribute in their communities are limited.

Although participants suggested that having a variety of paid employment opportunities was important, the primary focus of this discussion was volunteerism. Of note, the availability of paid employment appears to vary across the communities that participated in the focus groups. In some communities, labour shortages provide opportunities for seniors to either remain or re-enter the labour force. In others, opportunities are limited to work in stores and minimum wage jobs. At least one participant remarked that if seniors are required to use newer technologies in a paid work situation, training should be provided.

Summary of Key Findings

Discussions across Canada shed light on some considerations and suggestions that communities may consider in addressing how seniors participate in civic issues and employment:

Age-friendly features include . . .

  • Recognition and appreciation for the work of older volunteers
  • Opportunities for paid employment
  • Opportunities for older people to provide volunteer services to other older people
  • Volunteer activities and opportunities that are accessible to and accommodate the needs of older volunteers—and that offer them personal fulfillment
  • Opportunities for seniors to be politically active, including openness to their participation on local council and similar organizations
  • General opportunities for seniors to make a contribution to community life
  • Asking older adults to volunteer—especially in areas that make good use of their skills
  • Opportunities for seniors to be involved in fundraising activities
  • Opportunities for intergenerational contact in civic and volunteer activities

Barriers include . . .

  • Over-reliance on seniors, leading to over-commitment and burnout
  • Difficulties finding enough seniors to participate
  • Transportation and travel challenges
  • Lack of opportunity for and/or barriers to paid employment
  • Health and physical challenges prevent some seniors from participating

Suggestions from participants for improving
age-friendliness . . .

  • Recruit seniors of all ages as they possess different points of view—focus on younger seniors.
  • Work to encourage older seniors who may be shy or reluctant to volunteer to participate more (e.g., through a phone call, encouraging words).
  • Develop strategies for recruiting and motivating seniors to volunteer.
  • Recruit seniors for short-term projects.

8. Community Support and Health Services

Whether or not older people are able to age in place depends upon a number of factors, including the availability of support and services that meet the varying needs of seniors. These include professional services, such as medical and personal care.

Across the focus groups, older people, caregivers and service providers spoke positively about many aspects of the support and care that they could access in their communities. They expressed much gratitude for their very caring and responsive health care professionals—in particular, they mentioned doctors, nurses and pharmacists. However, in many communities a shortage of health care professionals was identified as an important problem for seniors.

The discussions in some communities emphasized the positive aspects of health and community support, including one-stop health or wellness services, home health care support, as well as the diversity of health services, including non-traditional services such as massage therapy and chiropractic services. Some noted the advantages of having palliative care programs, loan programs for aids and equipment (including medical alert systems), and other essential services such as affordable meal programs (including congregated group meals and home-delivered individual meals). Delivery services, especially groceries and pharmaceutical deliveries, were seen as very important by many focus group participants.

“My only comment would be when someone gets to the point where they can’t take care of themselves they’re shipped out of the community. They’ve grown up here. You remove them from all their friends, possibly their relatives, and they’re really detached from everybody.”

While a wide variety of services has been developed to support seniors, many of them—meals delivery, specialized transportation, home care, visiting homemakers, and counselling and information—are unavailable or far too expensive in many rural and remote communities. Cuts to funding for home care (including respite services) in the past 10 years were frequently cited by focus group participants as the problem underlying the current lack of support available to older persons wanting to remain in their home. Most frequently mentioned were cuts to homemaking support and, to a lesser extent, cuts to respite services. Many older adult participants expressed that their greatest fear is being forced to leave their community when the services they need are not available there.

One of the issues that dominated many discussions concerns the need for seniors to travel out of the community to receive health care services and the corresponding challenges—especially those related to distance, time and costs. The planned introduction of telehealth services to a couple of the participating communities is clearly keenly anticipated. The new service is expected to reduce the need for people to travel for a day or more in order to spend less than an hour with a specialist. The out-of-pocket travel expenses associated with out-of-community medical appointments often go beyond transportation costs in many cases, and include the costs of an overnight hotel stay.

Summary of Key Findings

Focus group participants offered information about and suggestions for communities to keep in mind as they plan health and other support services to meet the needs of their older residents:

Age-friendly features include . . .

  • Caring and responsive professionals (doctors, nurses, pharmacists and specialists)
  • Provision of home health care support
  • Access to affordable meal programs
  • Diverse health services and facilities in the community—including palliative care
  • Availability of housekeeping and home maintenance services
  • Availability of delivery services (e.g., groceries, medicines) and/or escorted shopping services for essential items
  • One-stop health or wellness service that includes a variety of services—physician, nurse, dentist, podiatrist, pharmacy, occupational therapy
  • Availability of equipment and aids—including medical alert
  • Programs that support caregivers—including respite services

Barriers include . . .

  • Costs and other difficulties related to the need to travel out of the community to medical appointments
  • Lack of health care professionals in communities, especially doctors
  • Out-of-pocket health care expenses, including those related to travel
  • Insufficient home care services, including respite for caregivers
  • A lack of or limited supports to enable seniors to remain independent
  • Costly homemaking supports
  • Requirement for seniors to move out of the community for care
  • Lack of coordination, consistency and continuity of care for seniors

Suggestions from participants for improving age-friendliness . . .

  • Use cluster-care models to provide integrated services to seniors.
  • Make use of retired professionals (e.g., pharmacists, nurses, teachers) to provide volunteer support in seniors’ homes and clinics—for example, to explain medication and health care issues.
  • Set up a Safely Home Program—a program developed for cognitively impaired people through the Alzheimer Society.
  • Provide twice daily cooking services to seniors living in supportive housing.
  • Work to attract more doctors into rural and remote areas.
  • Provide home supervision to support correct administration of medication.
  • Offer respite services to caregivers.
  • Establish daycare services for seniors to provide an activity for the seniors and respite for caretakers.
  • Provide a home visit program to provide social visits to seniors.
  • Set up caregiver support groups and elder care information sessions where families can learn about available community programs and services.


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