To Parminder Raina, age is really just a number — scientifically speaking.
Raina, the scientific director of the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging, points to the difference between complex movements a young person can do compared to the simpler motions of an older person because of how the body weakens over time.
But the age when all that happens isn’t necessarily the same for everyone, he says, and as Canadians live longer, the markers we set around aging need a rethink.
It’s why Raina is keeping an eye on the latest census figures scheduled to be released on Wednesday morning that will detail how the country aged between 2016 and 2021.
By the time the 2016 census rolled around, the ranks of Canada’s seniors over age 65 had for the first time outnumbered the nation’s youth 14 years of age and younger.
The results from the 2021 census count will likely show an acceleration of that trend, with the proportion of seniors potentially edging close to accounting for one-fifth of the national population.
And, as Raina notes, the results should show how life expectancy has changed and how that may also reshape the policy decisions linked to an aging population.
“This is some of the realization the research community and the policy-makers are having — maybe not the politicians as yet — but that just looking at the birth age or chronological age is not going to be a good indicator of determining what happens,” he said.
“There is a lot of research that is happening now to think about, how do we actually measure what the biological age of a person is, can we use some indicators to come up with that number, then use that number to adjust the chronological age, so you’re not inflating that idea of the age.”
The census figures will likely show the population aging faster in Atlantic Canada, and maybe British Columbia, with a youth movement showing most in Alberta, said Doug Norris, chief demographer at Environics.
Though even there, Norris suggested that the youngest provinces may see a faster pace of aging than those that already have a high proportion of senior citizens, because of the expected decline in the number of 20-somethings over the past five years.
The pace of aging nationally is expected to jump through to 2031 when the youngest baby boomers turn 65 — the oldest would have hit 85 — and Canada’s proportion of seniors rivals levels that peer nations like Japan encountered five years ago.
“The impact of aging really won’t be felt for a while, but it’s coming and will likely be another five or 10 years when we really start to see big increases in that 75- and 80-over population,” Norris said. “And that in turn has implications for health care, for nursing home needs [and] for long-term care.”
The census will also detail where many of those seniors live. Wednesday’s release will include details on the types of dwellings people lived in on census day, including “collective dwellings” like long-term care homes.
The vast majority of seniors won’t live in such a facility, which Raina said has implications for community planning so people can age at home.
If, as expected, the census shows that rural areas are aging faster than cities, it may force a rethink of health-care planning often done through an urban lens, said Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of CanAge, a national seniors’ advocacy organization.
“This census is an opportunity for us to pull apart some of what aging at home actually means in a concrete way, as opposed to a hand-waving, high-level way,” she said.
A new data point on the census will come from a revamped short-form question about gender, providing details on transgender and non-binary populations.
The figures will not only help shape government policy, but ensure non-binary populations are recognized where still ignored, said El Chenier, a history professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who focuses on the historical treatment of homosexuality.
The census data, then, may provide a tool for non-binary populations to pressure organizations to recognize them, and help groups that already recognize them better adapt programs and services.
“When a government body like Statistics Canada says, ‘we’re gonna collect data on this,’ it literally says, ‘this exists and this is real,’ and people to this day continue to deny that trans people exist and that non-binary people exist,” Chenier said.