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.”