Recently I had the privilege of being invited to join the Board of Directors of the Brantford Seniors Resource Centre, a not-for-profit organization that offers services to senior in our community. For me this has turned out to be a wake-up call. Life for most seniors is not the Freedom 55 promised to us in the 1980’s. As my generation moves towards what is supposed to be our golden years, we find that we are entering an environment that is totally unprepared for us.
I remember when demographer David Foot in his Canada’s Population Outlook: Demographic Futures and Economic Challenges (Toronto: 1982) warned us about the onslaught of people moving towards retirement. Insurance companies were telling us to invest for our future. The future to most of us was a distant time and many thought that it would somehow take care of itself. The more naïve of us expected that governments of all levels would have a plan in place to ensure that we would live comfortably, and with dignity, when we retired. In retrospect, this was not a great strategy!
One economic crisis after another has depleted government treasuries and eroded personal savings. Poor planning, and the need to respond immediate problems, did not improve the situation. So here we are today hearing that the Harper Government proposes to extend the age of retirement to sixty-seven and the McGuinty Government tries to deal with the issue through band-aid programs. While I can appreciate their dilemma, the challenge is only going to get worse as the aging baby-boomers reach retirement age.
We need not look outside of our community to measure the scope of the problem that awaits us.
The Alzheimer Society of Brant says that 1 in 11 Canadians over the age of 65 will contract one form of dementia or another. The number rises to 1 in 3 for those over 85. Dementia affects the brain and compromises our ability to interpret the world around us. It ultimately impacts our ability to live independently and places a heavy burden on families and institutional resources. It also affects women more than men. Here in Brant, we have 17,000 individuals over 65. If 1 in 11 fall victim to dementia, that is 1,600 individuals. There are another 3,000 over 85. If 1 in 3 develops dementia, we add another 1,000.
Currently in Brant, we have 890 long term care beds. More than half of the individuals suffering with dementia require long term care beds. Our current requirement is about 1,000 beds for dementia patients let alone people needing institutional care for other reasons. This number is expected to double by 2026.
What about the cost to families?
Today, Canadians spend 231 million unpaid hours caring for family members suffering from dementia. This will rise to 756 million unpaid hours within a generation. This includes attendant care, shopping, book keeping, transportation, meetings and dealing with medical practitioners. Some 40% of caregivers suffer from mental stress. They experience higher rates of depression, suicide, physical illness and premature death. While there is some financial relief through Caregiver Tax Credits and Disability Tax Credits, 93% of patients, caregivers and professional service providers feel that the range and care of support services in Ontario needs to be improved. There not only needs to be more dialogue between healthcare practitioners and specialists, but als between the professionals and family caregivers who face their own set of problems. The emotional impact of dementia is described in Nancy Poole’s The Bitter Journey of Alzheimer’s: One wife’s daily log (2010). The book describes the life of Lloyd and Nancy Wilson as they strug- gled through his battle with Alzheimer’s.
The case of dementia represents only one aspect of the challenges that lie ahead as the number of seniors explodes over the next decade. Seniors will also live longer. The impact on our healthcare system has been well documented from the perspective of cost, shortage of doctors, waiting times and access to services. Governments at all levels have been working towards a strategy that will enable seniors to remain in their homes as long as possible. Organizations such as CARP strive to bring senior issues to the attention of governments.
The problem is that the numbers may well overwhelm us. At the Brantford Seniors Resource Centre the current demand for services places an already heavy burden on the volunteers. As more baby-boomers reach retirement age, the demand for services will increase. Planning for that day is a challenge. Virtual services may represent one type of solution, but it does not replace direct contact. Nor does it resolve the issue that we are being left to ourselves to develop solutions. Family and community groups are going to be integral to meeting the needs of an aging population. The reality is that there will be fewer young people supporting the tax base that finances government services and pensions.
It is true that many retirees have good pensions from their workplace. There is, however, a far larger number that do not. These are the people who will be living on fixed incomes, working as long as they can meet the rising cost of living. We failed to heed the message in the past, but gray power is truly on its way. Seniors will be demanding the services they need to live in dignity as the strength in their numbers grow. What form that power will take on depends very much on what we do now, though it may already be too late. As we look at our aging parents, friends and colleagues, we should be thinking about the type of society we want for them and ourselves. Will it be a kinder, gentler society? Or will it be a society in which the majority of the aged struggle to survive?