The coming old-age crisis

Val Ross January 17 1983

The coming old-age crisis

Val Ross January 17 1983

The coming old-age crisis


Val Ross

A 71-year-old woman splashes in the water for the New Year’s Day Polar Bear swim in Vancouver; in Moose Jaw, Sask., 80-year-olds learn to swim for the first time in a program called XYZ (Extra Years of Zest). More than a dozen retired professionals take part in a Seniors Think Tank in Winnipeg—a sort of greying Club of Rome— and send their ideas to governments and conferences. Across the country pensioners line up to get into universities and community colleges to study just cbout anything, their clamor for places sometimes exceeding demand by 2,000 per cent. The life that many of Canada’s older citizens are shaping for themselves is vigorous, regenerative, even fulfilling. It is a far cry from the treatment society has often reserved for them—literally working them to death in a Victorian workhouse or, more recently, depositing them in shabby nursing homes to fade conveniently out of sight and mind.

It is no easier than ever to face an age when the candles cost more than the cake. But today more Canadians are living longer in hopes of cutting themselves a celebratory slice. Two million Canadians are now over 65, and, according to Statistics Canada, with 3.7 million people now aged between 25 and 34, the number of over-65s will more than triple when the baby-boom generation starts to retire. By then, in the year 2015 and the following decades, the global population of elderly will number a staggering one billion— the size of China’s today. The impact will be gigantic as different age groups struggle over power, public funds and the opportunity to preserve their private dreams.

The upheaval will come as surely as wrinkles and sagging skin. Yet in Canada, despite a recent proliferation of seniors’ centres, conferences, federal and provincial government bureaus—even the growth of the medical specialty of gerontology—society is ill-prepared to cope with the fact that it is going grey.

The exception might be the private sector, which is already

starting to deal with the continent’s maturation. In its 1982 report, Tomorrow's Customers, the Toronto-based consulting firm Woods Gordon advised its clients to watch for increased demand for “recreational activities suited to older people, such as golf on shorter courses.” Procter and Gamble, on the other hand, catering to another sector of an aging society, is test-marketing adult-sized disposable diapers for the incontinent. Meanwhile, Canadian breweries, mindful that beer consumption nose-dives after age 45, are diversifying vigorously—Labatt’s into pasta and Molson’s into office supplies. Brokerage houses have been advising investment in such firms as Extendicare Ltd., Canada’s largest publicly traded nursing-home operator, and Arbor Cap-

ital Resources, the only publicly traded cemetery operator in North America.

But, although aging can be exploited, the elderly are not necessarily valued. To attain old age is often to feel depreciated and diminished. The evidence is in the increasing incidence of alcoholism and suicide among the elderly. As well, Statistics Canada labor-force studies confirm that age discrimination persists: workers over 45 have longer bouts of unemployment than younger workers, and only 27 per cent of workers over 55 have jobs at all. Because a large chunk of the population—43 per centhas no investment or private pension income, retirement often means nearpoverty or actual destitution. Fifty per cent of people over age 65 live on less than $6,000 per year. Despite 11 provincial and federal task forces, various royal commissions and the reports on pension reform, culminating in last month’s federal green paper, Better Pensions for Canadians, and a commitment to reform from Health and Welfare Minister Monique Bégin, redress for the elderly seems as remote as ever (page 28).

Clearly, the longer it takes to introduce workable reforms, the less effective they will be. With the current lack of action, the greying of the baby-boom generation will almost certainly transform today’s quiet tragedies into tomorrow’s noisy crises. The demographic bulge that overflowed maternity wards in the 1950s, classrooms in the 1960s and the job markets now has caught policy planners unprepared once again. University of Toronto sociologist Edward Harvey predicts an increasingly hectic scramble for future jobs as the fear of postretirement poverty drives workers to cling to employment as long as possible. That attitude is already creating unprecedented bottlenecks in union-protected jobs and professions. But squeezing older workers out of the labor force is not the best answer, now or in the future. The burden of supporting society’s dependents—a burden the boomies first imposed as they crowded the schools—will be falling on fewer and fewer. Before the middle of the 21st century, every three em-

ployees could be supporting two retirees, by supplying pension incomes, health-care needs and subsidized housing. Looking ahead, Victor Marshall, a U of T associate professor of behavioral science, warns of the “increased potential for generational conflict.”

Limbo: So far, Canada’s response to these alarms has been to daub its aging features with patches of cosmetics. “It’s very distressing that there is still no national policy on aging,” laments Glo -ria Gutman, director of Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Centre. All there is so far is a two-year-old co-ordinating body, Ottawa’s Office on Aging in the ministry of health and welfare. Its chief accomplishments have been to prepare Canada’s submission to last summer’s World Assembly on Aging at the United Nations and to call for a follow-up conference in Canada this fall. Admits office director Mireille Badour: “There is a federal-provincial consensus on what the problems are—but so far no consensus on what should be done.” Accordingly, the growing crises in health-care funding, the repayment of the provinces’ $22-billion debt to the Canada Pension Plan and pension reform lie unresolved in a federal-provincial limbo.

Meanwhile, each province struggles to co-ordinate a plethora of programs for the elderly. The most advanced are in Quebec, where all health and social services fall under a single ministry, Manitoba, which has just appointed its

first provincial gerontologist, and British Columbia, where home-care services are monitored in a central registry. As for the Maritimes, observes Doreen Fraser of Halifax, national president of Canadian Pensioners Concerned: “We’re in the Stone Age.” In Ontario a small, five-person office, the Seniors’ Secretariat, sits uncomfortably astride

several different ministries, attempting to co-ordinate various programs for the elderly (nursing homes, for instance, fall under the jurisdiction of the ministry of health, but homes for the aged are handled by community and social services). But even Ontario’s small secretariat has been hobbled by a cabinet power struggle as Health Minister Larry Grossman plans to review all programs at a provincewide conference his ministry is organizing for next month.

Although the provinces appear to be moving in the right direction, the initiatives are taking place at a time of budget cuts to already fraying social services. Warns U of T gerontologist Joey Edwardh: “Any social reforms you try to make that affect only the old and not

the rest of society are simply temporary Band-Aids. The inequities we tolerate now mean more poverty and poorer services later on.” As Simon Fraser’s Gloria Gutman observes, “We have to start shifting resources from the young to the old-time is running out.”

Planners should be shifting resources from the young to the old now, before it is too late

Struggle: For parts of Western Europe, that time has run out. Such countries as Austria, Sweden and West Germany are already as “old” demographically—the elderly constitute at least 15 per cent of the population—as Canada will be in the year 2010. West Germany’s elderly, its largest single age group, claim the largest bites of the welfare pie: a quarter of the social security benefits go for pensions and allowances, and the nation’s health-care budget claims even more. With unemployment at record levels, industry is trying to coax older workers to retire at as early an age as 58. In the midst of this turmoil, Labor Minister Norbert Blum has even voiced fears of a possible class struggle between older workers with jobs and the unemployed young. But, with Germany considering cuts in or taxes on pensions in order to reduce the financial drain, the elderly are understandably loath to retire.

The longer look into the future offers an even more startling vision. Unless Germany’s birthrate picks up—it is the lowest in Western Europe, at 1.4 children per woman of childbearing age— the population is expected to drop from 61.5 million today to 51 million by 2010. In his latest work, Headbirths, or The

Germans Are Dying Out, German novelist Günther Grass only half jokes about the phenomenon as a kind of voluntary cultural suicide. “What will the world be like when there are no more Germans?” he asks.

North America is still about three decades away from Europe’s current demographic crisis.

But similar situations are appearing randomly, like stray silver hairs. B.C. communities such as White Rock and the Kelowna region have become so popular as retirement centres that as much as 30 per cent of their population is over 65. For Quebec, although the crunch is less dramatic, an already-declining birthrate and an aging population could spell special problems of cultural survival. “If Quebec is losing ground,” muses University of Montreal demographer Jacques Henripin, “the reason is that we are losing many more people than we are gaining. And, for Canada as a whole, the francophone por-

tion will continue to decline, according to every hypothesis.”

The social welfare scramble, as well, has already started on this side of the Atlantic, most notably in Florida. Seventeen per cent of that state’s population is over 65. And, although the seniors have blessed the local economy with their retirement incomes, “The elderly are beginning to strain the services of the state,” says John Stokesberry, director of Florida’s program on aging. Already, the government can only meet about 12 per cent of the demand for nursing-home beds, meals on wheels and housekeeper services. “The retirees just keep coming,” says Stokesberry, “and there isn’t any money.”

In the years ahead, Stokesberry’s lament will become a common chorus in Canada. Canadians are living longer healthy and, then, longer sick. Funding the future health-care needs will require a massive transfer of resources, probably from education budgets, as the number of young people declines. In addition, massive reorganization of the health-care system will be essential. A 1975 government survey found that as many as 45 per cent of the elderly in nursing homes were self-sufficient, yet today Canada’s elderly are still victims of one of the highest rates of institutionalization in the world (8.4 per cent). More and more, old folks’ homes have been transformed into pleasant hotels which try to guarantee their guests continuing involvement in community life. For example, Harry Mattheson, 89, a resident of Oxford Lodge in Guelph,

Ont., passes on his woodcarving skills to groups of schoolchildren from the public school across the street. But institutionalization as a de facto national policy is simply too costly. In 1980 Ontario spent $455 million on institutional care but only $40 million on community support services for the more than 90 per cent of the population living on its own. As Doug Rapelje, chairman of the Ontario Advisory Council on Seniors, says, “Something’s out of kilter.”

Day care: Current thinking on the problem calls for removing people in stable or healthy condition from institutions and providing what Sam Ruth, executive consultant to Toronto’s pioneering Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, calls “a continuum of care.” That means everything from occasional telephone checks to chronic home-care service, from day-care programs that offer recreation and balanced lunches to a place in a sheltered apartment for seniors, with guaranteed access to hospitals as needs arise. But, at present, with the exception of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, most provinces lack even the skeleton of such a program. Nova Scotia has no day hospitals and only a few pilot projects in home care. The vast majority of Canada’s nursing homes are privately run, for profit; accordingly, it is economically irrational for them to admit the people who need them most—those who require extra medical attention. They sometimes even refuse to readmit for-

mer residents after brief stays in hospitals, a situation which leads inevitably to hospital overcrowding and higher costs all round. At the same time, there is little interprovincial integration. Rev. Andrew Lam of the Winnipeg Seniors Think Tank, who is chaplain to the city’s Taché nursing home, says that two residents have been unable to transfer to similar facilities outside Manitoba, where their children and grandchildren live. “It’s sad for them,” notes Lam, blaming provincial government red tape.

A more rational retreat from institutions is the challenge ahead. But, warns the U of T’s Victor Marshall, threats to shame families into reassuming responsibility for their own grandparents are not practicable. “Families are shaped differently now,” he points out.

“They’re not pyramids where a lot of kids provide a broad base of support to a few older people but, rather, long strings where two generations could be in retirement, supported only by one or two grandchildren.” In any case, the elderly prefer independence: the health and welfare ministry is predicting a 92per-cent increase in the number of households headed by seniors between 1976 and 2001. For them, the shortage of affordable housing close to transportation, which all Canadians lament, will be particularly galling. Some solutions include reforming zoning bylaws to allow for “granny flats” (self-contained cottages which the elderly can set up in

their children’s or grandchildren’s backyards); “reverse mortgages,” which would allow elderly homeowners to sell their homes slowly, thereby supporting the rising costs of home ownership; establishing communes for the elderly; and even transforming the gradually emptying schools into residences for the aged. At Alma College in St. Thomas, Ont., that is already working with great success. Fifteen retirees live in residence alongside the college’s students. “It’s noisy, sometimes,” smiles Helen Harcourt, 75, “but they keep us young.”

Another requirement for successful deinstitutionalization is providing for the needs of the handicapped in the community. One thing that infuriates Bill White, executive director of the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped, is the shortsightedness of the planners who refused to allocate an extra one per cent of the budget to equip new rapid transit systems in Toronto and Calgary with elevators and ramps for wheelchairs. “As the babyboom bubble moves along, the incidence of mobility, sight and hearing impairment has got to increase,” White points out. And it will only cost more to add wheelchair facilities later.

There will also have to be dramatic changes in the baby-boom generation’s attitude to health care in general. The generation that has substituted jogging for savings as preparation for its old age may be deceiving itself. Dr. Bailus Walker, director of the Michigan de-

partment of public health, is worried about a 35-per-cent increase he has noted during the past two years in the number of elderly patients whose health problems (chiefly respiratory) are caused or exacerbated by the bad water and polluted air. Like Walker, B.C. farm worker Harbhajan Sandhu, 48, expects the environmental problems building up today to rebound on the aging work force tomorrow. Already, four of Sandhu’s fellow farm workers have died from overexposure to pesticides. “It’s possible that I may accumulate them, too,” he says, and with no disability insurance, “I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Poverty: Aging need not mean declining into physical decrepitude. But, when age is combined with poverty, ill health is almost inevitable. Though medicare and drug assistance is free to senior citizens, additional health-care needs can strangle limited budgets. Cornelius Hepner, 73, of Petersfield, Man., worries that he cannot afford the special diet required by his diabetic wife, Frances, on their joint $500-a-month income. “Sure, medicare and drugs are free,” scoffs Joseph Johnston, 78, of Halifax. “But so what? You can’t eat medicine.”

The answer for many Canadians is to attempt to cling to a place in the work force as long as possible. For the first time, aging workers are turning to provincial human rights and federal Charter of Rights legislation to win the right

to retain their jobs. Only last year Dr. Dwight Parkinson, a neurosurgeon, and Aubrey Newport, a court official, won two separate rulings from the Manitoba Court of Appeal that they should not have been forced to retire at 65. Increasing numbers of similar victories could drive Canada in the direction of the United States, which, in 1978, increased the mandatory retirement age to 70 from 65.

But, when older workers cling to their jobs, they block the career paths of those who follow. The oldest members of the baby-boom generation are a case in point. They entered the work force in the early 1970s, when the economy was still expanding, but they now have Nowhere to Go—the title of a 1981 study of career “blockage” in the federal civil service by the Institute for Research on Public Policy. According to the IRPP, the consequences are that the boomies, now in or approaching middle age, are bottlenecked—and in turn will “block for 20 years at least their lower-level colleagues.” The study further warned that blockage could threaten the quality of the civil service’s decision-making: “Lack of motivation is already the number 1 problem in the Canadian public service.”

In fact, blockage is becoming a problem in all sectors of an economy that has cooled since the expansionary 1970s, most notably in the area of education. Currently, more than 5,000 teachers in Ontario alone, most of them young newcomers, have lost their jobs due to declining enrolments as staffers with seniority stay on. “Teachers are frustrated,” says Dawne Lupton, a former English and art teacher. Laid off in Burnaby, B.C., where she estimates that more than half the teaching population is now over 35, Lupton speculates that the greying of her profession could alter the quality of its service. “Kids need a whole spectrum of ages to relate to,” she believes, “but the number of teachers in their 20s is almost insignificant.”

Many of the elderly share the concern. The Seniors Think Tank, for example, supports mandatory retirement. Explains member Sybil Shack, 71: “Without mandatory retirement, people beyond a certain age have to be told individually that they’re no longer capable of handling the job. That’s devastating!” Fellow think-tanker Edwin Eagle, 71, retired dean of arts and science at the University of Manitoba, not only worries about the disadvantage that

blockage creates for younger workers but also about “disadvantaging the disciplines—not letting in new ideas.” But there are economic realities to be faced, and Agnes MacDonald, a 74-year-old retired school principal in the group, argues for the right to work late in life: “You can’t force people out of work if they can’t survive.”

For MacDonald, the nub of the problem is pensions. There are three legs on which Canadians rest their retirement incomes. The oldest is Old Age Security, the lump-sum payment system started in 1927, which is both universal and relatively popular. The other two, the Canada and Quebec pension plans and private (individualand employer-sponsored) arrangements have been roundly criticized. Among the reasons are gaps in their coverage, the unsettled funding arrangements and—because they are income-related—the widening disparity between rich and poor after retirement. For example, tax breaks on registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs) favor the middleand upper-income earners but are utterly irrelevant to a man like Harbhajan Sandhu with no discretionary cash. His average annual income from his B.C. farm work is about $3,000, but none of his various employers contributes to his CPP. With the full contribution deducted from his meagre earnings, Sandhu has nothing left over for private plans. “The future is a big pressure on my mind,” he admits, “because it looks like I won’t be earning much when I go on pension.” The majority of Canadian workers, like Sandhu, are covered only by CPP, and calls for its reform have been most clamorous. But the 4.5 million Canadians who also count on private pension schemes are still awaiting reforms to patch the gaps in their coverage. “More delay!” scoffs Canadian Pensioners

Concerned President Doreen Fraser at the news that suggestions for reform will be discussed in nationwide hearings starting next fall. She tartly criticizes the federal green paper for suggesting a 60-per-cent survivor-benefit clause “when we say it has to be 75 per cent.” Fraser also argues that there should have been an emergency clause to provide extra income for those over 80 who missed inclusion in the CPP. “Obviously the paper was written by wellheeled bureaucrats.”

Besides, as long as pensions are related to lifetime earnings, any worker who has endured bouts of unemployment is going to suffer more after retirement because of the gaps in pension contributions. “That’s a double jeopardy,” says U of T’s Edwardh. No one knows the bind better than Lynne Fras-

er, 43, who was widowed shortly before she moved from Toronto to Winnipeg in 1966. She raised five children on welfare. “During all those years when things were difficult, I did think about the future. But I was not in any position to go out and work,” she says. “I could not save for my future because we barely had enough to get by.” Her frustrations are echoed by George Hutchings, mayor of Corner Brook, Nfld. At age 41 he is a self-made businessman, owner of a downtown pharmacy. But Corner Brook’s major employer, Bowater Industries, will shut down in April, and Hutchings is now watching his future fade with the economy of his home town. “The dream is that you work 13 hours a day and hope that at 55 you can go into early retirement. But now you hope to hang on to what you have, just to keep the bankers from closing you up. What I dreamed of seven years ago does not exist any more.”

Will the death of dreams mean the birth of realism? To date the babyboom generation’s accommodation with the reality of its own aging has been characterized by self-deception. Now the icons of its youth to which it clings are themselves sprouting cobwebs. Mick Jagger is 39, Mickey Mouse a spry 55. But the challenges presented by an aging society are going to demand more than realism, warns Dr. Cope Schwenger, a Toronto professor of community health. In nothing less than a call for a change of heart, Schwenger concludes, “The baby boom’s preoccupation with self-improvement has got to change into a sense of group responsibility.”

With Diane Luckow in Vancouver, Gordon Legge in Calgary, Catherine Carlyle-Gordge in Winnipeg, Victor Paddy in Toronto, John Kalina in Montreal, Michael Clugston in Halifax, Randolph Joyce in St. John's and Peter Lewis in Brussels.

Diane Luckow

Gordon Legge

Catherine Carlyle-Gordge

Victor Paddy

John Kalina

Michael Clugston

Randolph Joyce

St. John's

Peter Lewis