May 30, 2017 3:30 pm
Updated: May 30, 2017 9:32 pm

Canada ‘woefully unprepared’ to deal with senior population surge, Senate committee hears

Canada's population of seniors is about to surge, thanks to aging Baby Boomers and improved life expectancy - all of which comes with a host of public policy challenges.

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The federal government’s failure to address a slew of issues relating to seniors means Canada is “woefully unprepared” to deal with its aging society, a Senate committee heard Tuesday.

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“Until such time as the Government of Canada makes decisions based on the demographic trends in aging … will we be able to make significant changes,” said retired senator Sharon Carstairs, who has spent decades working in and studying the fields of elderly and palliative care.

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

The perceived problem is not a small one; census data released earlier this month found that, for the first time, seniors are outnumbering children in Canada.

When the 2016 data was collected, there were 5.9-million people aged 65 and older in Canada – just slightly more than the country’s 5.8-million people aged 14 and under.

Statistics Canada attributed this, in part, to the post-war baby boom; as the first group of baby boomers turned 65 and entered their senior years, they had a disproportionate impact on Canadian demographics.

Canada’s low fertility rate was also a factor, as was the fact Canadians are living longer than ever, they said.

Regardless of how the country got to this point, the fact of the matter is it’s poised to continue on this trend, Statistics Canada analysts said.

WATCH: Aging in the Okanagan: Seniors population on the rise

But as long as the country’s demographics have been projecting along this line, the government has failed to act accordingly, Carstairs told the Senate committee studying the costs associated with Canada’s aging population.

Today, 70 per cent of all deaths in Canada occur to people older than 65, and the majority want to die at home, the former senator said.

“Tragically, for some, that will never be possible,” she said. “They will still have to die in acute-care hospitals.”

READ MORE: For the 1st time, more seniors than children living in Canada

Thirteen years ago, only five per cent of Canadians who needed access to palliative care were able to get it, a number that has increased to 35 per cent, Carstairs told the committee.

“There are still 65 per cent of dying Canadians not receiving quality end of life care,” Carstairs said.

That means 65 per cent of dying seniors are attached to machines they don’t want to be, are in pain, and dying without the dignity and respect they deserve,” she said.

Those who die in hospital are not only spending their final moments uncomfortable and in an unfamiliar place, but are costing the country more than necessary, Carstairs argued.

According to data she offered, a person dying at home costs $80 to $100 per day, whereas a person dying in hospice costs $350 per day and someone dying in an acute-care setting can cost as much as $1,600 per day — yet the federal government doesn’t offer funding to hospices, she said.

READ MORE: Canadians spend $33B annually to care for aging parents, study finds

When she sat in the upper chamber, Carstairs was a member of the committee that tabled a report in April 2009 on the same issue.

That report, she said Tuesday, laid out in detail “what needed to be accomplished” to ensure what she called the “security” of the aging population.

“It made recommendations with respect to security of their person, security of their health, security of their income and security in terms of their ability to age in the place of their choice,” Carstairs said.

“Regrettably, little has changed.”

The issue of the aging population in Canada is of great interest to Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, his office said Tuesday.

A spokesperson for Duclos pointed to several steps the government has taken in support of seniors, including restoring the age of eligibility for Old Age Security to 65 from 67, as the previous Conservative government had done.

WATCH: Experts say rising poverty levels in Nova Scotia impacting health care system

“In budget 2016, we also invested over $200-million in the construction and refurbishing of senior housing,” the spokesman wrote in an email.

“The government has already take action to improve seniors’ income security, especially for low-income seniors. We are also committed to other measures … such as developing a poverty reduction strategy.”

Some of the more pressing matters, Carstairs said, facing the government and country include:

  • Basing health funding on a province’s overall population rather than the proportion of seniors living there;
  • Encouraging seniors to become more active, just as the federal government does for children;
  • Offering education and means of protection from physical and financial abuse;
  • Affording seniors the opportunity to age and die where they want.

WATCH: Art therapy program pairs seniors with dementia with young volunteers

The current, per capita funding scheme creates an imbalance, she said, offering the example of Alberta, where seniors represent 13 per cent of its population, receiving more seniors funding per capita than the Atlantic provinces, where seniors represent 20 per cent of the population.

The Canadian Medical Association has long said the government’s funding framework could mean those dollars aren’t going to where they’re needed most: Canada’s seniors.

Canadians 65 and over account for only 15 per cent of the population, but consume 45 per cent of health-care spending, according to statistics from the CMA.

READ MORE: Provinces with more seniors should get more health care cash, doctors say

Increased funding could help those seniors living below the poverty line, whose incomes depend on Old Age Security, the Guaranteed Income Supplement and minimum levels of the Canadian Pension Plan, Carstairs said.

Carstairs also called for the government to reach out to seniors and make them aware of financial scams and what to do if they face physical abuse, as well as extend its ParticipACTION program to seniors and advertising walking as an easy, inexpensive and healthy form of exercise.

“An advertising program promoting this would be positive,” she said. “Our [2009] report recommended this, but it has been ignored.”

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