May 5, 2017 11:03 am
Updated: May 5, 2017 2:35 pm

Is Canada’s health-care system ready for our rapidly greying population?

WATCH ABOVE: Everything you need to know about the Census 2016 results

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As the aging of the country’s population continues to accelerate, experts warn Canada desperately needs to invest more in home care to meet the needs of its elderly citizens.

The 2016 census from Statistics Canada, released Wednesday, showed there were 5.9 million people aged 65 and older in the country – slightly more than the country’s 5.8 million children 14 and younger.

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It’s the largest increase for that age group in 70 years.

The data found there were 770,780 Canadians over the age of 85 in 2016. This cohort increased nearly four times as fast as the entire population between 2011 and 2016.

“We need to accelerate the pace of change in our health-care systems to build up those services in the home and in the community so people can live dignified lives in their older years,” said Danielle Martin, a family physician and a vice-president at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

READ MORE: Canada’s aging neighbourhoods, in 10 maps

Martin says our health-care system is “very hospital-centric” and Canadians are traditionally “big users of emergency departments.”

She says our health-care dollars need to be spent on improving home care and community-based services for seniors.

“If we continue to build our system around hospitals and long-term care facilities and other institutions, it will be expensive and it won’t be respectful of the clear choices that people want to make about the way they want to age.”

Warnings about Canada’s greying population aren’t new. Since 2015 there have been more people over the age of 65 than there are children under the age of 14 living across the country.

A 2015 report from the Conference Board of Canada (CBC) estimates that 2.4 million Canadians over 65 and will require continuing care support, both paid and unpaid, by 2026. By 2046, that number will reach nearly 3.3 million.

To meet this increase a 2017 CBC report released in March found that the overall demand for nurses to provide continuing care to seniors in home, community, and facility living settings is projected to increase from just under 64,000 full-time jobs to 142,000 full-time jobs by 2035 — an annual growth rate of 3.4 per cent.

Martin said governments at all levels need to focus on improving care at home which includes everything from outfitting residences with assistance devices to help with cooking or access to virtual care programs monitored by health care professionals.

“Our home-care system needs to be flexible to the needs of the individual, and we need to have ways of evaluating what people’s needs are and also acknowledging that those needs can change over time,” she said.

WATCH: The 2016 census shows the East coast is Canada’s rapidly greying region

Susan McDaniel, a Canada research chair in global population and life course at the University of Lethbridge, says we need to be focusing on those 85 and over.

“The first edge of the baby boom is just 65-70,” she said. “We have 15-20 years to plan for them to be 85 plus and needing health care.”

Chronic care, home care, and increasing access to pharmaceuticals are three pillars policymakers need to be focusing on, says McDaniel. Investments in these areas will also reduce overcrowding at hospitals by removing people who don’t necessarily need around-the-clock support.

READ MORE: Elderly women redefining what it means to age alone

Health Minister Jane Philpott has acknowledged population growth among older Canadians will have implications on health-care but there is “no cause for panic.”

“Aging is a good thing, and the fact that we’re all living longer is very good news for Canadians, reflects the fact that we have an increasingly healthy population and it’s great that people are living longer,” she told the Canadians Press. “It does, of course, raise concerns as it relates to the sustainability of our health-care system, but there is no reason for panic.”

Ottawa has pledged to spend $6 billion over the next decade to provide the provinces with new funding for home-care programs.

“[Home care] promotes employment which is great but secondly it promotes a healthy older population and it’s cheaper,” McDaniel said. “It’s a win, win, win.”

— With a files from The Canadian Press

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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