Sil­ver Tides

As a surge of baby boomers re­tire, Qualicum Beach, B.C.—Canada’s most el­derly town— is a model of the com­mu­ni­ties they’ll call home


Qualicum Beach, B.C.—the coun­try’s most el­derly town— has be­come a model of the com­mu­ni­ties baby boomers will call home. MIKE MILNE FROM THE UC OB­SERVER

IT IS A COOL FALL DAY when I first drive down Me­mo­rial Av­enue in Qualicum Beach, a town of 8,943 peo­ple on Van­cou­ver Is­land’s eastern shore. I’m watch­ing closely for any­thing on the main street that might cor­rob­o­rate this Bri­tish Columbia en­clave’s claim to fame: it is Canada’s most el­derly com­mu­nity.

Then, the quin­tes­sen­tial scene ma­te­ri­al­izes be­fore me: a half-dozen se­niors push­ing their four-wheeled mo­bil­ity walk­ers in sin­gle file along Sec­ond Av­enue.

They slip into the rear-view mir­ror as I head to­ward the wa­ter’s edge along the Strait of Ge­or­gia. But it leaves me won­der­ing: could this town, with a whop­ping me­dian age of 65.9 and a chart-top­ping 52.1 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion over 65, pro­vide a glimpse into Canada’s grey­ing fu­ture?

My de­mo­graphic group, the chil­dren of the post­war baby boom, is ag­ing. Across Canada, that gen­er­a­tional bulge has al­ready raised the pro­por­tion of peo­ple aged 65 and older from eight per cent in 1956 to 17 per cent to­day. By 2031, that over65 crowd will make up al­most a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion. To get a sense of what life may look like in the wake of the de­mo­graphic tidal wave that’s been dubbed the “sil­ver tsunami,” my wife, Jo­ce­lyn, and I vis­ited Qualicum Beach for two weeks.

EURO­PEAN SET­TLERS moved into Qualicum Beach in the late 1800s. They built a golf course in 1913, shortly af­ter con­struc­tion of the nowde­mol­ished Qualicum Beach Ho­tel. Other ho­tels, lodges and restau­rants fol­lowed. At­tracted by mild win­ters and scenic views—coastal is­lands and main­land moun­tains to the north and Mount Ar­row­smith loom­ing in the south­west—re­tirees began ar­riv­ing in the 1950s and ’60s. Since then, suc­ces­sive waves of se­niors have helped drive up the town’s col­lec­tive age and shape its char­ac­ter.

Ian Lind­say, a lo­cal real es­tate agent who moved to Qualicum Beach from Cal­gary over three decades ago, says that be­cause the town has no in­dus­try, older cit­i­zens will play an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant role in the lo­cal econ­omy. It’s easy to see why they’re drawn to the area. Apart from its ver­dant scenery, Van­cou­ver Is­land boasts the high­est av­er­age win­ter tem­per­a­tures in Canada. For ac­tive re­tirees, that means more mild days for bik­ing, hik­ing and kayak­ing.

Like most small com­mu­ni­ties across Canada, Qualicum Beach is try­ing to re­cruit more physi­cians. Though the lo­cal health author­ity has a strong com­mit­ment to home care that helps se­niors stay put, it’s less than an hour’s drive to mid-sized hos­pi­tals in Nanaimo, Port Al­berni and Co­mox, and Vic­to­ria’s large hos­pi­tals are two hours away.

A wel­com­ing na­ture, which seems to come nat­u­rally to most of the town’s res­i­dents, is harder to quan­tify but still im­por­tant. Re­tirees who make the move find an en­er­getic group, the Qualicum Beach and Area New­com­ers’ Club, ready to help them set­tle in. Founded in the early 1990s, the club hosts ac­tiv­i­ties that in­clude walk­ing and golf ex­pe­di­tions, book and art meet­ings, wine and whisky tast­ings, and monthly lunch dates, plus in­ter­est groups for down­hill ski­ing, kayak­ing, mo­tor­cy­cling, air­craft restora­tion and crib­bage. I joined ap­prox­i­mately 20 club mem­bers on a two-hour Fri­day morn­ing trail walk that passes be­tween two creeks and winds up on the wheelchair-ac­ces­si­ble, 2.5kilo­me­tre south loop of the Light­house Coun­try Re­gional Trail.

Hiker Eve­lyn McGachy says she didn’t know any­one when she and her hus­band left Mon­treal and moved here in 2013. Through the New­com­ers’ Club and its din­ner groups, she says, “We’ve met fab­u­lous peo­ple….

In Qualicum Beach, se­niors are phys­i­cally ac­tive, so­cially in­volved and do­ing what­ever suits them.

We weren’t any­where near as so­cial in our home­town.”

OUR TIME IN Qualicum Beach hap­pens to co­in­cide with the town’s Ac­tive Ag­ing Week, of­fer­ing an abun­dance of free so­cial and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties. But even in a reg­u­lar week, the town is brim­ming with adult learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. The Old School House Arts Cen­tre of­fers art and pho­tog­ra­phy classes, while the ECHO Play­ers run com­mu­nity the­atre pro­duc­tions. The Qualicum Beach Se­niors’ Ac­tiv­ity Cen­tre has about 300 mem­bers and a weekly sched­ule that in­cludes ukulele lessons, ex­er­cise classes and games.

One Thurs­day even­ing, af­ter check­ing out Qualicum Beach’s mu­seum, Jo­ce­lyn and I stroll over to the nearby Bap­tist church. As we stand out­side, mu­si­cians be­gin ar­riv­ing. In true Qualicum Beach fash­ion, a woman head­ing into the church asks if we want to join. She tells us the all-ages en­sem­ble is the Ocean­side Jam­mers, an in­for­mal learn-by-ear, play-by-ear group of fid­dlers who meet weekly and oc­ca­sion­ally per­form pub­licly.

Jo­ce­lyn says she al­ways wanted to play the fid­dle, but a mu­sic-teacher rel­a­tive told her she was too old. “Bulls**t!” says the woman, who is well past mid­dle age. We sit on the park bench and lis­ten while the Jam­mers work through a ver­sion of “Mull of Kin­tyre.”

De­spite its prom­ises of learn­ing and so­cial­iz­ing, en­ter­tain­ment and ac­tiv­ity, re­tire­ment can also be “an in­ter­est­ing cri­sis time,” says Rev. Phil Spencer, min­is­ter at Qualicum Beach’s St. Stephen’s United. Some folks, he says, wind up “des­per­ately golf­ing off into eter­nity.” Spencer is not against the sport but notes, “You can only golf so much.” Some re­tirees show up at church look­ing for mean­ing, and he’s happy to help.

While stay­ing ac­tive and busy, Spencer’s con­gre­gants do rec­og­nize their mor­tal­ity, he says. “We cer­tainly talk about death a lot here. Per­haps be­cause we’re con­stantly re­minded of it. We’re not a death-deny­ing cul­ture.”

FOR THE RECORD, there’s no daily mo­bil­ity-walker pa­rade in Qualicum Beach. At least I never see the Sec­ond Av­enue crew again.

Se­niors with walk­ers—of­ten with com­pan­ions—are a fa­mil­iar sight on the beach­side board­walk and down­town streets. But for the most part, as a group, the se­niors here seem to be in great shape—phys­i­cally ac­tive, so­cially in­volved and do­ing what­ever suits them. Un­til time and de­bil­ity take their toll, peo­ple think young.

Ian Lind­say says the town used to be seen as one of Van­cou­ver Is­land’s most well-kept real es­tate se­crets. “But I think the best-kept se­cret is that we’re not re­ally as old as they say we are.”

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