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As baby boomers head into retirement, it is increasingly important for them to stay healthy and active. So how can Alberta’s rural communities keep seniors from becoming sedentary?

A 68-year-old aqua-size instructor from Whitecourt says three things are key.

First, don’t go easy on seniors just because they are older. Expect them to be active.

“If you don’t have expectations, they end up in wheelchairs—or at the very least, having difficulty getting in and out of bed. When I am teaching, I have no pity whatsoever on them,” says Betty Anderson. She has taught aqua-size for 25 years.

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Second, keep seniors coming back to exercise class by ensuring that they have fun.

“We socialize, and there has to be laughter,” says Anderson, who teaches three times a week. “If I make jokes and act goofy, the participants enjoy it. They get to know each other and feel comfortable in the class.”

Anderson has some students who have attended her class for approximately 20 years. Her class members, who are of all ages, usually go to the local McDonalds for coffee after class.

She says the socializing after class is a key component of retaining seniors in exercise programs.

“Seniors like to socialize, and they enjoy getting to know people of all ages. In my class there is a lot of empathy. If you have a problem, someone else has very likely experienced the same thing.”

Third, instructors and program providers need to make their physical activity programs comprehensive.

“Seniors need more than just a cardiovascular workout. They need to work on their upper body strength and to do stretching. I watch their alignment, so they don’t injure themselves,” she says. Anderson has class participants lift light weights and do stretches in the shallow end.

Anderson also mentions the importance of being able to get to the exercise classes. In a rural community, public transportation is often non-existent or limited. Many seniors don’t drive, and they often depend on friends or family for a ride.

Louise Krewusik, the mayor of Grande Cache, says this is a challenge her community has faced. The town, located northwest of Hinton, doesn’t have a public bus, she says, but it offers older residents vouchers for taxis in the winter.

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Krewusik says that although Grande Cache has many young families moving in, many seniors or soon-to-be retirees also want to stay during their retirement. Many have lived there ever since the town was built in 1969.

For many seniors throughout Alberta, a lack of programs in their area is an issue.

“Quality of life is so important. It can make a big difference to our seniors remaining where they lived their whole lives, which they want, and not moving to a larger centre,” says Krewusik. “In Grande Cache we are fortunate that we have a recreation centre with many programs aimed at seniors. There is a rink for curling and an indoor pool.

As well, it is a very walkable town,” she says. “Every single morning I see a regular group of walkers go by.”

Grande Cache’s tourism centre offers a program called Passport to the Peaks. Participants have to climb 21 mountain peaks located around the town. The first person to attain that feat was a 73-year-old man.

Krewusik points out that seniors are often very active in organizing their own activities. “They keep us on our toes. They are aware of their needs and the issues they face.”

Grande Cache has a social club called the Big Horn Golden Age Club, with approximately 250 members. They have a carpentry shop, offer aerobics classes and social dances, and more.

“One lady who is 83 told me she won’t want to miss her aerobic class for anything,” says Krewusik.

Many seniors also have trouble affording programs because they are living on a fixed income, says Krewusik. “We try to keep costs as low as possible,” she says, but still the programs can be difficult for seniors to afford.

Another hindrance for seniors who want to exercise is the Alberta winter. Betty Anderson says that is when programs such as hers are especially crucial. “Many people can’t get out and walk in the bad weather. They need to go to some indoor program, or exercise at home.”

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Both Anderson and Krewusik say that healthy communities encourage lifelong participation in activity.

Some ideas to help encourage seniors with physical activity:

  • Instructors organize coffee meetings after an exercise class, so participants can get to know each other.
  • Town recreation centres offer “free days” for seniors, so they can try out programs.
  • School buses that are not fully booked with students pick up older adults who live on farms or acreages and bring them into town.
  • All businesses and facilities pledge to improve snow removal in front of their properties, so seniors can walk more easily.

It is crucial for everyone in a community to look at helping seniors stay fit. After all, it will affect all of us one day.

“Fitness is a journey, not a destination. It never gets done. It’s forever,” says Anderson.

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Learn More
A Place to Grow: Alberta’s Rural Development Strategy
The Alberta Government’s 2005 rural development strategy.

Rural Route to Active Ageing
Physical activity and active living ideas for adults 55-75 in rural areas.

Age Friendly Rural and Remote Communities: A Guide
Designed to increase awareness of the need for seniors to be active, this resource includes a practical guide that communities can use.

Active Living by Design – Rural Communities
Information tailored to promote active living to rural residents.

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