ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Simone McDonald is one of just four students at the school in McCallum, a community of fewer than 50 houses — some of them empty — tucked between two rocky slopes along the south coast of Newfoundland.
There were 10 students in the kindergarten to Grade 12 school when McDonald started nearly 12 years ago. But when students graduated or their families moved away, there weren't any younger children to replace them, she said.
McCallum is emblematic of a host of complications facing rural communities in Atlantic Canada, where young people are moving away and leaving behind their parents and grandparents.
Census data released Wednesday shows the region's population is much older than the rest of Canada, and it's aging rapidly.
About 22 per cent of Atlantic Canadians are 65 or older, compared with about 15 per cent of people in the rest of the country. By 2043, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick could be home to the highest proportions of seniors aged 85 or older in the country, with people in that age category expected to make up more than six per cent of the population in each of those provinces.
By comparison, people aged 85 and older currently make up 2.3 per cent of the entire Canadian population, the data shows.
"This will put pressure on the health-care system," said Statistics Canada's Julien Bérard-Chagnon in an interview.
Newfoundland and Labrador is the country's oldest and most rapidly aging population, with nearly one in four residents now aged 65 or older, he said.
McDonald, 17, is graduating this spring, and she hopes to buck the trend in her community and stick around — as much as she can, anyway.
McCallum doesn't have its own doctor, but it does get regular visits from those working at the clinic in nearby St. Alban's, McDonald said. She's starting nursing school this fall about nine hours away in St. John's, N.L., and she hopes to work at the St. Alban's clinic when she finishes, so she can make regular visits home.
"There's no place I'd rather be," McDonald said. "It's so beautiful and so free. Everyone here is like family."
Atlantic Canada's aging rural population comes with a few key complications, creating what can seem like a "perfect storm," said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health in Toronto.
People in the region already have higher rates of conditions such as heart disease — Newfoundland and Labrador leads the country in that category, with New Brunswick not far behind. And they may not have younger family members around to care for them because of the out-migration of young people, Sinha said in a recent interview.
But rather than build more long-term care homes, Sinha recommends Atlantic Canadian governments focus on prevention and awareness, and tap into the close-knit feeling in the region's communities so seniors can age at home in their care.
Sinha points to Denmark, where public health nurses pay regular visits to people over 80 to see if they're lonely, have health issues or are at risk of having a fall. In tiny, far-flung Atlantic Canadian towns like McCallum, someone like the post office worker could be trained to do the same, he said.
"There are things you can do to actually fund community organizers … who can organize social programs that can keep people healthy and engaged," Sinha said.
"We actually know what to do," he added. "The question is whether or not there is the will to actually start fundamentally changing the things that need to be changed."
Eighty-five-year-old Olive Bryanton agrees fundamental changes are needed. She earned a PhD three years ago at the University of Prince Edward Island at the age of 82, and she studies healthy aging.
Since earning her doctorate, Bryanton said she’s "never been so busy."
"We have to stop saying older adults are a burden on society, and we have to start looking at what are the benefits of having older adults in our society, and building on the capacities they have," Bryanton said.
Given the right supports with a focus on prevention, communication and keeping seniors engaged, older people can thrive and contribute to their communities well after they turn 65 or even 85, she said.
"We have to start asking the older adults themselves what they need," Bryanton added. "I think we have been siloing people way too much, we have separated the generations, we need to get back to … where we're working as a community."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2022.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press