Two of the city’s top bureaucrats say they understand just how important it is for Hamilton to transform itself into an “age-friendly city” — because if we don’t, we’ll quickly feel the brunt of a rapidly aging population.

“It’s not a secret that the baby boomers are aging, and in the next 10 years, we’ll be in that retirement age,” said city manager Chris Murray at Friday’s conference on aging in the city hosted by the Social Planning and Research Council.

“All of that presents certain challenges that we need to address.”

Hamilton’s retiree population is about to explode. The first swath of baby boomers — the generation born between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1960s — has started hitting retirement age.

According to the 2011 census, Hamilton is home to 81,575 people over the age of 65. That's 16 per cent of our local population, as opposed to 14.8 per cent nationally. The Ministry of Finance projects that Hamilton’s senior population is will grow by 93 per cent by 2033. That means the city will be home to some 170,000 seniors, by conservative estimates.

'This is a challenge that isn’t going to go away.' - Chris Murray, city manager

Similarly, the 19-40 age group will shrink in that same time frame, Murray says. “That begs the big question — who’s going to be around to pay for everything we’ll need to pay for in the coming years?” Murray asked. Hamilton’s already heavily weighted residential tax base will have to pick up the slack, as many seniors don’t have the same kind of disposable income they did when working.

The key will be maintaining a healthy tax base to keep Hamilton’s infrastructure in decent shape. About 13 per cent of the city’s tax base comes from the industrial and commercial sector — the rest comes from the residential base. According to Jim Dunn, a McMaster University professor of health, aging and society, it would take 28 new Canada Bread factories to increase that number by just one per cent.

“Which is something we should absolutely be actively trying to do — but it’s no quick fix.”

Making a more efficient city

What is a quicker fix, however, is using the infrastructure we have more efficiently, Dunn says. That means prizing density and moving away from growing outwards in suburbs.

The first batch of they city’s boomer population is hitting about 70 now, but it’s when they turn 80 in a decade that we’ll really notice problems, Dunn says. Many of those people are car-dependent and live in the suburbs, but there’s no way that they’ll all be able to live on their own and drive well into their 80s.

“Essentially what you’ll have is tens of thousands of older people trapped in the suburbs with no car,” Dunn said. He lamented that the sort of sprawling development the city has pushed in the last few decades is the exact opposite of what the people who live in it will need as they age.

“What we really need is to think through the idea of affordable housing in service-rich, dense neighbourhoods.”

Jason Thorne, Hamilton’s new general manager of planning and economic development, says it isn't possible for seniors to stay in a lot of neighbourhoods the city has built in the last few decades.

He sees that with his own parents, who still live in the suburbs, in a neighbourhood of single-detached, half-a-million-dollar homes. His father can’t drive anymore, and his mother doesn’t like to drive.

Building complete communities

“Everything they need to access is a drive away,” he said at Friday’s conference. The alternative, he says, is constructing “complete communities” that includes walkable streets, amenities, churches, and doctors all with denser housing stock.

“It’s something we’re going to see a lot of in the future,” Thorne said. “This interest we’re seeing in development hasn’t been seen in a generation or two.”

That’s why the city needs to examine its housing supply and the stock of affordable housing that already exists, Murray says. Right now there’s a 5,000-person waiting list for affordable housing in the city. That’s something the city needs to work on, Murray says.

“This is a challenge that isn’t going to go away.”