Compared to other parts of the city, St Vital is a relatively young neighbourhood. That being said, there are an increasing number of seniors living in St Vital – over 8,000 at last count – and some neighbourhoods in St Vital North are home to a high proportion of seniors.
A nutritious diet is particularly important for seniors. Eating healthy foods helps seniors maintain and improve their health and reduces the risk of many diseases. Food programs have also been shown to have multiple benefits for seniors, including reduced social isolation and improved mental and physical health. Nevertheless, seniors do face some particular challenges in regards to food and food access.
One challenge that seniors face in regards to food access is transportation. Mobility is an issue, particularly for people dealing with physical challenges or for people who are no longer able to drive. Even after they have arrived at their destination, walking through large supermarkets can be difficult. For some, it is also difficult to then carry heavy bags of groceries from the store to their residence. To assist their residences, some seniors residences offer shuttle services to nearby grocery stores and some grocery stores deliver groceries.
A second challenge faced by some seniors is limited income. In Manitoba, 15% of food bank users are 65 years of age or older, the highest of any province in Canada. While there is no evidence for St Vital in particular, some of the neighbourhoods with the highest rates of seniors also have high rates of low income. For example, in Alpine Place approximately 25% of people over the age of 65 are under the after tax low income cutoff. As with any population group, low incomes affect the ability to access food – whether through grocery stores or fee-based meal programs.
Many seniors have a wealth of food knowledge and skills. A third challenge, however, is that many do not. Widowers, in particular, face difficulties as their wife was often the primary (or only) cook in the family. When their spouse passes away, widowers are left to feed themselves without any cooking skills. Many rely on family members or purchase most of their food at restaurants. As a result, their quality of diet often deteriorates.
Seniors, however, have a lot to contribute to the food community. They have the knowledge and experience of cooking for their whole lives. Their generation often is better able to use fresh, non-processed ingredients than the generations that followed. This knowledge also often extends to gardening, one of the most common recreational activities for seniors. Many came from a farm – or at least had more connections to farms or gardening – when they were younger and know how to grow things.
An exciting opportunity in St Vital is the development of intergenerational food programs. Some have already begun. St Vital Knights Villa, for example, hosts a garden space that is shared with children from the neighbouring daycare. When I went to visit, some residents from the residence had brought down popsicles for the kids, and they often come to water or weed together. The Nutrition on the Go program is another example of intergenerational sharing. In this program, local seniors volunteer to prepare healthy lunches for school kids. This year some kids will be invited into the kitchen with the seniors to learn while they cook. Some of the seniors themselves were learning how to cook – simultaneously improving their own cooking skills, contributing to their community, and providing healthy meals for low income children.
Another opportunity that was identified was to make gardening opportunities more accessible for seniors. While some seniors garden in their own yards – and others have no interest in gardening – many who are now living in apartments or seniors residences may not have an opportunity to garden. For some, this is a significant loss. I know of some seniors for whom giving up the garden they have worked hard on for many years was one of the most difficult parts of leaving their house for an assisted living facility. Providing space – particularly through raised beds that are easy for seniors to access – would not only provide healthy food but also a valued recreation space. A space that would contribute not only to recreation but to healthy lifestyles and develop community.
Every demographic group has its own challenges and opportunities. Seniors are no exception, providing our communities with invaluable knowledge and skills.