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GETTING OLDER: The drive for independence

Elizabeth Winter at home in St. John’s.  —
Elizabeth Winter at home in St. John’s. — Ashley Fitzpatrick/The Telegram

Well-being and access to transportation are closely linked for St. John's woman

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Editor’s note: The one thing we all have in common is that we’re getting older by the day, and as we age, our priorities and lifestyles change.
In time, many of us will have to deal with similar issues — staying independent and active, maintaining a social life, getting involved (or staying involved) in volunteer work and community advocacy, finding the right housing fit for our lifestyles, and making the transition to retirement.
In this six-part series, The Telegram’s Ashley Fitzpatrick talks to people about what they’ve learned from their own experiences.

Elizabeth Winter knows people who have suffered social isolation, inactivity and the negative consequences that follow. In some ways, she has a hard time understanding it.

“So many people who retire — I don’t know what they do. People who have worked all their lives, they retire and the next thing you know they’re dead. Because of what? Did they stop moving, did they stop thinking, did they stop enjoying things?” she said, in a recent interview with The Telegram.

The former farm owner acknowledges there are barriers that can play a role. She’s had the personal benefit, for instance, of not wanting for transportation.

She still has a car and her licence, and can afford the taxis she uses on occasion, which are plentiful in the City of St. John’s. She has family and friends who offer to drive her, as well. “But you don’t want to fuss with them all the time,” she said.

She knows other people don’t have as many options. Taxis are costly as a daily source of transportation. Buses are available in the city, but waiting outside in the cold, the rain, the snow — particularly in areas without seating — can be a hurdle too high.

And in a place built for drivers, people will often stay in instead of getting out.

Winter, 92, spoke with The Telegram the same week as she was having the required biannual physical for her driver’s licence. She passed, no problem.

Winter’s preferred grocery store is Belbin’s on Quidi Vidi Road in St. John’s.

“I can phone them up and have things delivered, which is a good thing, but I like to go down and have a look,” she said.

She’ll pop down. She’ll drive to the library. She was appreciated for picking up other players for her bridge club for years. But she’s maintained her licence mainly for the freedom it gives her to get up and go.

Winter, 92, spoke with The Telegram the same week as she was having the required biannual physical for her driver’s licence. She passed, no problem. She’s not allowed any highway driving, though — essentially she abides by a restriction to stay on roads with lower speed limits, which is easier to adapt to for someone in the city. 

“As a choice, I do not do any night driving and I only drive around in good weather in areas that I know. Why this is such a good area to be in is I can actually walk to just about anything I needed, just around the neighbourhood here,” she says of living in east-end St. John’s. Still, she enjoys the independence offered by her vehicle.

In May 2018, the New York Times published a report titled “Japan moves to ease aging drivers out of their cars.”

It noted Japan as the oldest population in the world, with nearly 28 per cent of residents over 65. By comparison, 17.1 per cent of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador as of 2013 was age 65 and older. That’s expected to reach 34.5 per cent by 2038.

In Japan, according to the report, there is a requirement for cognitive tests for licence renewals, typically once every three years after age 75. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there is a requirement for a medical exam at age 75, then at age 80 and every two years thereafter.

All medical checks aside, the number of people over 65 who have voluntarily given up their licence in Japan reportedly tripled over the last five years.

And the New York Times report goes on to speak to what can happen next, to quality of life, after losing the primary mode of transportation. Living in Tokyo and Kyoto is one thing, but living in the countryside is something entirely different.

Although about 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities, in Atlantic Canada only about half the population lives in urban areas, according to Statistics Canada.

The 2017-2018 annual report from Seniors NL (the latest available), notes the results of a survey of 320 older adults in the province. In all, 27.3 per cent indicated they would not, or do not know if they would, be able to get to places they need to go if they could not drive anymore.

As The Telegram reported in 2017, a national survey of Canadians by State Farm, with results offered by region, found only 34 per cent of respondents from Newfoundland and Labrador stating they believe they will keep their licence to the age of 75 to 79, let alone beyond.

The provincial government has been putting money into an Age-Friendly Transportation Pilot Program since 2013. At last update, $1.9 million has gone into the program. But while Budget 2018 included $300,000 in continued funding, to help community transportation projects and accessible vehicle purchases, the budgeted money has yet to be distributed, as of early February. The delay was tied to a required evaluation of the program.

Winter’s choice to drive is not necessarily the norm — something she points out herself — but it’s what she prefers.

She said she’s been exposed to ageist comments for decades now, but doesn’t think much of it. She said it’s important to her to remain engaged in the community, and to keep active, not just intellectually but socially.

She says she’s clear on the risk in the alternative.


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Be mindful of regulations

Drivers in Newfoundland and Labrador are required to submit to a routine medical exam in order to keep their license at age 75, regardless if they are renewing at that time or not. The requirement is based on age, not renewal.

The same is required at age 80 and every two years thereafter.

More information is available in the Highway Traffic Act Driver Regulations.


Wants and needs

There is a growing market for services to people at home, from basic snowclearing to ordering in food — but transportation services are also key.

In 2017-2018, Seniors NL recorded 3,203 inquiries. While 15 per cent were about available affordable housing, 18 per cent of inquiries were related to daily living.

The Top 10 most common referrals?

  1. Home support
  2. Residential snowclearing
  3. Home maintenance
  4. Accessible transportation
  5. Emergency alert systems
  6. Foot care
  7. Home delivered meals
  8. Transportation to medical appointments
  9. Home accessibility
  10. Yard work

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