Creating Community for a Lifetime

Big Picture, continued

The Calgary Experience: Older Adults Define and Lead Grass Roots Efforts to Build Elder Friendly Neighborhoods

In one Calgary neighborhood, Cantonese and Vietnamese speaking elders reported that they experienced difficulties obtaining services, encountering frustrating communications barriers along the way.

In another neighborhood, older adults realized that many of their neighbors who were eligible to receive provincial “special needs” funds did not know how to apply for them. They also noted the lack of subsidized housing for seniors in their part of the city.

Across town, older adults in another neighborhood sensed the need to build their leadership capacity.

Each of these neighborhood discussions was initiated and facilitated by the Calgary Elder Friendly Community Program which was spotlighted at the Michigan Elder Friendly Community State Assembly held in East Lansing in November 2005 (see Michigan Update). Now in its fifth year, the Calgary initiative provides an intriguing model of a research-based community effort to increase the well-being and quality of life for older adults living in urban neighborhoods.

In 2001, a collaboration of the City of Calgary with health care and higher education partners conducted a focused assessment of the assets, capacities and needs of older adults and their families in five Calgary neighborhoods. An analysis of the data produced eight common themes that were consistently identified across participating neighborhoods.

These themes became the basis for the second phase of the project. Staff from the partner agencies invited older adults residing in the five target neighborhoods to a meeting in their own communities. After hearing the results of the assessment, participants discussed the results, added issues that had been missed, and identified priorities for their neighborhoods. Subsequent meetings led to more discussion, consensus-building, and formation of grass roots committees focused on key issues.

Four years later, in four of the original target neighborhoods, seniors gather regularly to plan and implement neighborhood initiatives. In response to concerns about communications and cultural barriers to services, a Vietnamese Elders Group and Northeast Support Group (Cantonese) have formed, conducting meetings in the members’ first language. Both groups meet twice a month – at one meeting, they learn about accessing services and at the second they practice Tai Chi and participate in a senior-oriented ESL class.

Both ethnically-based groups also send representatives to meetings of Seniors’ Voice, the Elder Friendly Communities Program group for a northeast Calgary neighborhood. They collaborate with Seniors’ Voice in joint initiatives and multi-ethnic seniors events in their communities.

Seniors’ Voice is the group that took up the challenge of linking their neighbors to provincial “special needs” funds. After receiving training by city staff to inspect homes and provide assistance in filling out funding application forms, Seniors’ Voice members can now work one-on-one with their neighbors in need. More recently, the group started working to address the development of affordable housing for older adults who want to stay in the neighborhood.

And across town, the Varsity Cares neighborhood group planned and hosted a Senior Leadership Conference last year that drew 110 older adults from the community.

The Elder Friendly Communities Program today provides part time community development workers to support seniors’ community efforts in four pilot neighborhoods, as well as in a cluster of four neighborhoods that are the basis of a demonstration project to test what was learned during the pilot project stage. Evaluation and research conducted during the pilot phase led to development of a process model for community development with seniors that will be tested in the new cluster.

For more information about the Calgary Elder Friendly Communities Project, go to

For a thought-provoking discussion of the neighborhood-based model for senior-led community development, see “Contact, Connect, Contribute: Moving Disconnected Calgary Elders Towards Community Contribution” in the Research/Reports section of the Calgary web site.