The annual Yellowknife reunions in Victoria, Kelowna and Edmonton are testament to the many ex-Yellowknifers living down south. It used to be that people came north, made their nest egg and headed back south to enjoy it.
These days, though, it seems more and more Yellowknifers are retiring – or not – and staying put. Call it a career change or finally doing what you’ve always wanted to do. Either way, more and more of the no-hair, and grey-haired, set are digging in for the long haul, right here.
According to government statistics, the NWT’s senior population (65 and over) is predicted to more than double in the next 13 years, and in Yellowknife, that number will more than triple. There are around 700 people age 65 and over in Yellowknife. By 2029, that’s projected to increase to 2,600.
This is a concern for Jeff Renaud, CEO of AVENS (formerly known as YACCS), which runs the seniors housing, dementia and long-term care facilities in the capital. “We don’t have enough capacity right now to care for the number of adults that are going to be staying in Yellowknife,” he explains, which is why AVENS recently launched a campaign to develop more long-term care and affordable housing options for the elderly.
Renaud attributes this upcoming surge in seniors to current residents choosing to age in place. “Yellowknife is becoming a city of third and fourth generation families,” he notes. “We have better infrastructure in the last 40 years – better facilities to provide a better quality of life.”
To gather some insight into this phenomenon, I headed out to do some reconnaissance. My first stop was at the Henderson home, where, according to the sign, you “Come as guests. Leave as friends.”
This charming couple first came to Yellowknife in 1975. Eric built their house himself a few years after they moved here, and he and Eva have operated a bed & breakfast in one form or another for the last 30 years.
Up every day at 6 a.m., Eva gets the coffee going and eggs on the grill. Did I mention Eva is 88 and Eric is 82? This is “retirement” for the Hendersons, and they’re not planning to make any changes. They clearly love their lifestyle and Eva confirms, “This is our home. I’ve spent almost half my life here.”
Eric notes that power, heating and fuel are expensive, and the price of food is starting to go up. “We can’t go caribou hunting now, so we miss that,” he says. “But we have excellent medical care and the weather is lovely – summer and winter.”
Eva claims she doesn’t know what an 88-year-old person is supposed to be doing, but in her spare time she goes to tai chi at the Baker Centre once a week, walks the track at the fieldhouse in winter, and around the neighbourhood in summer. Eric has a workshop, so there’s no end to his creative projects, especially after a visit to the dump.
With four of their five children and their grandchildren living in Yellowknife, Eric confirms they won’t be going anywhere. “I’ve got so much junk collected, it would take a convoy to move!”
At home with Eva and Eric Henderson.
Weighing in on the other end of the spectrum is Marjorie Rowe. At the glorious age of 80, she left the highflying city of Toronto to relocate in Yellowknife. Her husband had passed away, and after living most of her life in Toronto, she came north to be close to her son and his family. She wasn’t sure how things would work out, but as an outgoing city gal, she was willing to jump in and give it a try. Worrying about things is not her style.
That was seven years ago, and now at 87, Marjorie is thriving and, as she puts it, “enjoying her time of life.” She credits her regular visits to Tim Hortons for her first introductions to people around town. “When I first came, I didn’t know a soul,” she recalls. “I’d come to the coffee shop and would sit and read the paper.” She’d say hi to people she kept running into. “People here are so friendly,” she adds, “but you’ve got to put yourself out there.”
It didn’t take long before she knew more and more locals. “I met a few people and then started going to the Baker Centre (managed by the Yellowknife Seniors Society) for Lunch With the Bunch, and met even more.” Marjorie now pays daily homage to the nationwide social mecca that kick-started her social life. At $1.70 a cup, she is part of a regular Tim Hortons crowd (and there are several) that meets every afternoon – rain or shine.
Despite all her relocation success, Marjorie travels back to Toronto twice a year to get her city fix. As the saying goes – you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl.
By the same token, you can’t take the country out of the boy (or whatever that saying is). Eddie Jones is 81. He first came to Yellowknife from Fort Resolution when he was five years old. “My dad was fur trading,” he recalls. “We had a store for five years on Latham Island before he went to work on the Canol Trail.”
Eddie has spent his whole life coming and going from Yellowknife. He travelled all of Canada with the Royal Canadian Air Force, has prospected all over the place and worked in various mines across the North. He wouldn’t think of living anywhere else.
“Yellowknife is the place to be if you like the outdoors,” he says. “You can go fishing, swimming, boating or walking in the bush. The outdoors is right at your front step. I love the summers here because it doesn’t get too hot, and I like all the daylight. The summers are the best in Canada.”
Eddie likes to keep active, and still dabbles in prospecting and a few other ventures. “It costs more to live up here,” he adds, “but the scenery and the climate outweigh that for me. I feel more free up here. I don’t think I could fit in with the southern city mentality.”
The most mentioned point amongst seniors I spoke to was the fantastic NWT medical care. Many say it is the best in Canada. People receive priority service in Alberta on major health issues – quicker than if they lived down south – and many of those services are free.
There are a host of government-supplied perks for northern seniors, everything from extended health care benefits to cover the cost of eyeglasses, to free parking from the city (see sidebar).
Expenses are one thing – ambience is another. Everyone I spoke to agrees Yellowknife is a friendly city that’s still got that small-town atmosphere; where you talk to people at the grocery store and you’re not afraid to smile at a passing person on the street. At close to 20,000 residents, the city is not too big, and not too small. It’s a place where, in certain circles, everybody knows everybody, but there are still plenty of people in town you don’t know, which keeps things fresh.
And if it’s people you’re looking for, one of friendliest groups in town is the Yellowknife Seniors’ Society, located in the Baker Centre on the AVENS “campus” of seniors’ facilities. This is a great organization that offers a wide variety of social activities to get seniors out of the house, meeting people and being physically active.
One thing mentioned by many as a plus for living in Yellowknife is the cooler temperatures (a concept I can’t relate to at all). A lot of older people prefer the more temperate summers up here, compared to other parts of Canada. And the winters (except for last year!) haven’t been as cold as they used to be. Coupled with better housing, better vehicles, more taxis and bus service – the winters are getting much easier to deal with than in the past.
Airfares too have become more affordable and the highway system has improved, so residents can travel more easily and cheaply if they need a break. While there isn’t as much variety in supplies and services as down south, there isn’t much you can’t get here in Yellowknife, especially if you’re an online or catalogue shopper.
“Everything is here that I need,” said one long-time resident. And that means Yellowknife is coming of age. While the cost of living is not cheap, people are prepared to do what it takes to be around family and friends, and a place they feel is home.
There are no tornados, floods or earthquakes, and as one hearty fisherman pointed out, “Some people pay thousands of dollars to go fishing or Aurora viewing up here. We just have to step out the door. There are certainly worse places a person could retire.”
It pays to get old in Yellowknife
by Lynda Comerford
Seniors’ Perks from the GNWT
Extended Health Benefits (EHB) Seniors’ ProgramSpecifically for non-native and Metis residents, the territorial government’s extended health benefits program kicks in when you hit 60, but you have to apply for it. It provides up to 100 per cent coverage for prescription drugs, dental services, eyeglasses, and approved prescribed medical supplies and equipment. Coverage is subject to program limitations and exclusions, and whether or not you have access to another group insurance plan. [First Nations and Inuit seniors receive similar benefits under Health Canada’s Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program].
Seniors Home Heating Subsidy
Low-income seniors 60 and over who own and live in their own home may be eligible for the Seniors Home Heating Subsidy, which provides a set amount of wood, oil, propane, gas and/or electricity once a year.
NWT Senior Citizen Supplementary Benefit
This income security program is a monthly cash payment to low-income seniors.
Discounts to Drivers
At age 60, seniors get half-price fees for motor vehicle costs such as registration and licence plates.
Seniors’ Perks from the City
Free ParkingOnce you turn 60, the City of Yellowknife gives you limited free parking.
Property Tax Rebate
Most homeowners 65 and over can get an annual rebate of up to $2,000 on their property taxes.
Sources: GNWT and City of Yellowknife websites