International Symposium held in Tumbler Ridge

Trent Ernst, Editor


On August 26 and 27, experts on aging and volunteerism gathered in Tumbler Ridge for two days of presentations, discussions and deep thoughts on the similarities and differences between rural communities around the world when it comes to getting older.

Much of the discussion at the International Symposium on Aging Resource Communities revolved around the concept of aging in place, where older people remain in their own homes in small towns in places as diverse as Norway, England, New Zealand and right here in Tumbler Ridge.

The conference also focused on both services provided to these older people, as well as services these older people could provide to the community.

The stated goal of the symposium was to bring rural stakeholders together “to advance an understanding of the unique context of rural change in which people are growing old in resource dependent communities that were neither originally designed nor presently equipped to support an aging population.”

Mark Skinner, from Trent University, says the conference was held in Tumbler Ridge because it is one of the fastest aging resource towns in Canada. Since 1991, the number of people 65 and over has gone from 20 to 265, a 1225 percent increase. “People have asked why we are holding the conference in Tumbler Ridge,” he says. “It’s not the oldest resource town, but it’s one of the fastest aging. The changes that have happened here are dramatic.”

Skinner says more work needs to be done to understand how communities are responding to the challenges and opportunities of population aging, but says there is “compelling evidence” that the voluntary sector and volunteers have a key role to play in creating supportive environments for aging in place and positive community development.

Over the course of the two days, 17 international experts from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, the UK, Norway, and the USA shared the most up-to-date research on aging in place. Indeed, as Skinner made his presentation which looked at three projects across Northern BC—two in Quesnel and one right here in Tumbler Ridge—and how these connect to the broader community, members from these organizations provided updates as he was talking.

The research presented at this symposium will provide the basis for a new book to be published sometime next year that will inform future policy and practice in rural communities.

The presentations began with Neil Hanlon, Chair of the Geography Program at UNBC, and a presentation that defined the scope of what the symposium was about, followed by a fascinating presentation by Malcolm Cutchin on a “Deweyan Framework for Community Inquiry.” Cutchin is Chair of the Department of Health Care Services at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. The presentation focused on moving past traditional models of looking at aging, built upon the works of American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey. Dewey was a pragmatist and an anti-dualist, and Cutchin’s framework does not seek to reduce issues around aging to their most basic, but instead embraces the complexity found in everyday interactions.

These two sessions laid the foundations for the rest of the talks, which focused much more deeply on specific examples in various areas around the world. For instance, Kieran Walsh, Research Officer for Social Gereontology at the National University of Ireland, Galloway, discussed aging in farming communities in Ireland, while Paul Milbourne, Head of the School of Planning and Geography at the Cardiff University in Wales looked at how austerity measures undertaken by the UK government was affecting services for older people in rural England and Wales.

The second session, on rural population aging, ended with a presentation by Denise Cloutier, who presented data from a study comparing aging in rural and urban environments in the Fraser Valley Health Authority area. One of the big findings of her study is that a large majority of rural residents are aging in place rather than moving into long term care facilities. “Does this mean that rural communities are better at supporting aging in place,” asked Cloutier, Associate Professor at the Department of Geography and the Centre on Aging at the University of Victoria, “or does it mean older adults are staying at home longer than is safe or healthy, due to lack of services?”

The third session of the symposium looked at Rural Community Development. Tor-Arne Gjertsen, Associate Professor at the Arctic University of Norway looked at the town of Gamvik, a fishing community near the northernmost tip of Norway.  Like most of the communities discussed in the symposium, Gamvik is seeing an increase in the percentage of the community made up by older people, as young people are leaving to find jobs. His presentation discussed some of the problems being faced by the town. For instance, he discussed how large companies are buying up the fishing quotas that were once fished by local fishers, then coming in with large trawlers that allow them to process the fish on the boat and ship directly to places like China, cutting local people out of the process.

He also discussed some of the solutions that the community has come up with, including fish tourism and moving to produce high-end specialty items that provide higher rates of return for a lower volume of fish products.

Sarah Lovell’s research looks at the small New Zealand town of Mataura after the town’s meat packing pant closed down; the town has a population of 1500, and like Gamvik, has seen a lot of the younger residence leave. In an effort to keep the schools open, says Lovell, A Health Geographer and Lecturer in the Department of Preventative and Social Medicine at the University of Otago in New Zealand, the town prioritized finding jobs for the younger generation, making it harder on the older generation.

The last presentation in that session once again looked at Northern BC, analyzing provincial population trends and data since the 1950s. Sean Markey, Associate Professor with the School of Resource and

Environmental Management and an Associate with the Centre for Sustainable Community Development and Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University, says that Northern BC has a lot of instant towns, built to take care of the sudden influx of miners, foresters and hydro workers into the areas. Because of this, he says, many communities are dealing with the fact that their infrastructure is aging at the same time.

The North, says Markey, is a culturally complex place, with 62 First Nations groups and towns that are close together, but wildly different in composition.

In the 1950s, says Markey, W.A.C. Bennett proposed big projects to exploit the natural resources of the province, which lead to a thirty year boom sometimes called the Great Leap Forward. “Social stability was tied to industrial stability,” says Markey.

But there was a dark side to the development: First Nations were alienated. Environmental practices were poor. And many communities were dependent on just one resource.

The early 1980s brought recession, says Markey, as well as neoliberal politics. This lead to a thirty year period of restructuring and population loss. These days, many Northern Communities are dealing with aging populations and a mobile work force that will fly in and fly out, using a community’s infrastructure, but not adding to its tax base.

“We have had 30 years of growth, followed by 30 years of restructuring in Northern BC,” says Markey. “What will next 30 years look like?”

Markey says that the north needs to shift from comparative to competitive advantages and that the most radical thing people can do is stay where they are.

He shows a trio of photos from the downtown core of three different cities in Northern BC, pointing out the similarity between them all, leading to the impression that many of these communities are just becoming “Anywhereville, BC. How do we as a community resist this?” He asks.

He says that the towns that are now viewed as success stories often made decisions twenty years ago or thirty years ago. But it’s tough, with the boom and bust cycle of industry towns, for towns to make forward looking decisions when it appears to be full of uncertainty.

The next day saw discussions on volunteerism in rural areas. The first presentation of the day was by Christine Milligan, Professor and Director, Centre for Aging Research, Faculty of Health and Medicine, Lancaster University, UK. She also looked at how austerity cuts to social welfare and services for older rural populations (buses, post offices, etc.) has been impacting older rural residents. These service withdrawals frequently leave older rural dwellers at increased risk of loneliness and social isolation, which, according to research, can be as bad for a person’s health as smoking. Around five to seven percent of older population in these areas are experiencing severe loneliness, she says.

As younger people leave rural areas, older people are left without family support system, says Milligan. And older people are moving to rural areas from the cities—the rural idylls—and leaving their existing support system behind.

There are voluntary and community sector seeking to plug gaps, but these are often female dominated, both run by, and attracting women. But for the first time, there are over one million older men living alone in the UK, and are more likely to experience loneliness and social isolation, excluded from wider social relationships. Research shows that these older men experience greater difficulty in accessing effective social support and find it harder to make friends late in life.

Many services for older people target the social interactions, while men, says Milligan, are typically more attracted to activities that have a practical outcome. This is particularly true of men whose working lives was spent in male dominated environments, like miners.

One particularly effective solution, she says, is the Men in Sheds initiative. This originated in Australia in 1990s, and offers men a place that they can go and do practical things. Most sheds are equipped with range of tools and involve things like woodwork, furniture renovations, constructing goods for sale, fixing cars, etc.

These sheds can be located in converted garage, small room, or large industrial space, but are communal. “They aim to improve physical, social and emotional and spiritual health and well being, including alleviating loneliness and social isolation,” says Milligan. “They provide a space for older men to meet socialize teach and learn, and focus on communal rather than individual activity.

Milligan says it is the men who decide what form of activities will be undertaken at each shed, and each shed is tailored to meet needs of local context rather than standardized. She says that, while the sheds were created to deal with issues of men’s health, the people who come to the sheds are called “volunteers and members” and not service users.”

Following her presentation, Rachel Winterton looked at Birchdale Grove, Ontario. Change the town name and a few of the details, though, and it was like listening to a presentation about Tumbler Ridge. An instant town in Ontario that had a housing sale after the mine closure, dealing with the outmigration of young people and economic instability.

There, there are fewer formal volunteer organizations, and the ones that are there are struggling. The Legion has closed, Crime Stoppers is on the brink, and there are no ball teams in summer or men’s curling league in winter. “Everything is falling apart, no one is volunteering; Volunteers are suffering from burnout and lack of newcomer participation,” were all given as reasons, says Winterton a Research Fellow at the Faculty of Health Sciences, School of Nursing and Midwifery, La Trobe University, Australia.

But in contrast, she says, everyone pitches in to help everyone else. “How do we make sense of the contradictions and complexities,” she asks, though offers no firm solutions.

The last presentation of the day and of the symposium was from Mark Skinner, who looked at “volunteerism as a transformative process that shapes and is shaped by the interactions between older people and aging places.” As part of that, he looked at two community initiatives in Quesnel and one here in Tumbler Ridge. He says that volunteerism as a pathway of integration and marginalization. “Volunteerism is integral to both the personal and collective, but marginalization is often implicit within volunteer initiatives.”

He says that, while initiative failure can lead to burnout and withdrawal, we as a society can learn as much, or more, from these failures as we can from successes.

After the symposium ended, attendees, both from the local communities around Tumbler Ridge, and the speakers, went for a hike along the new Shipyard and Armada trails.