The Comox Valley on Vancouver Island attracts retirees from across Canada. Seaside towns like Comox and Courtenay offer easy access to recreational opportunities in places like the extensive Strathcona Provincial Park and provide a wealth of commercial, recreational and community services. However, accessing appropriate transportation options, especially as residents age, can prove to be challenging in all communities. Communities with a large geographic area such as the Comox Valley may have fewer transportation options and many seniors lose their ability to drive or walk long distances.
A public transit system can help keep retirees independent in their daily living, able to shop for groceries and medicine, and connected to social activities and their communities. Yet, many seniors have never used transit. Pamela Willis, Manager at the Comox Valley Senior Peer Counselling Society (CVSPCS), discovered there was a lot to be learned. Some seniors found the system intimidating because they could not decipher the schedule and route system. Others believed they couldn’t afford the fares, feared ‘angry’ drivers, or felt they would lose social status if they rode the bus.
To help seniors learn and experience the transit system, Willis and CVSPCS used a BC Healthy Communities Society (BCHC) Aging Well grant to collaborate with the Comox Valley Regional District, the local Senior Advisory Committee, Better at Home, and the Regional District Transit Authority to host Seniors Ride the Bus Day and introduce a Transit Ambassador Program. An initiative of BCHC and the Government of British Columbia, Aging Well provides materials, facilitation and funding for communities to assist seniors, and people who are soon to retire, plan for a healthy, independent future.
To launch the event, BCHC facilitated a workshop, in collaboration with CVSPCS, to explain the five key aging well areas – finances, health and well-being, social connections, housing, and transportation – and share knowledge about these things. One participant said they had decided to attend the workshop in order to find, “tools to help my husband and me plan for health and mobility issues, because we live in a rural area and live on a low income.” Another said they took away “a feeling of stimulation and connection with people who are caring and inspiring.”
Two days later, on a cold, windy and rainy day, Seniors Ride the Bus Day attracted 350 seniors across three locations in Courtenay and Comox. At each site, bus drivers answered questions, discussed routes and scheduling, gave tours of a parked bus and showed participants how to board safely with a walker or wheelchair. The participants were also introduced to the Transit Ambassador Program. Staffed by volunteers, the Transit Ambassadors spend 10 hours a week riding the bus with seniors in exchange for a free bus pass. The program bridges connections between seniors and other community members, and when an active senior gets comfortable riding the bus, they too can become a Transit Ambassador.
Willis recalls the many “a-ha!” moments that seniors experienced. “Many did not realize how well the transit system facilitated seniors, how ‘nice’ the bus drivers were, and how affordable the fares were.” Willis remembered one elderly woman in particular who seemed visibly angry before the event, and felt that the buses could not possibly work for her. However, after speaking with a patient driver, and with the assistance of one of the new Transit Ambassadors, she reached her destination on-time and had changed her heart and mind about the matter.