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Don't Believe Media Hype - Seniors Are Not the Wealthy Generation

10/16/2014 05:11 EDT | Updated 12/16/2014 05:59 EST

Working as an advocate for seniors' issues can feel like pushing water uphill. Yet, after a challenging few years which has seen headlines of flood and fire, bad food, bed sores, and a chronic shortage of affordable seniors' housing, it finally looked like we might move forward.

Citing a severe facilities shortage, then PC leadership candidate Jim Prentice came on strong as a voice for the elderly. He vowed to overhaul the system, proceeding at "twice the pace." We hung on every word, and then cheered at now Premier Prentice's pronouncement that there will be a brand new seniors' ministry. Hopefully this will mark an end to the musical chairs of responsibility that have impeded progress and approvals like we have endured in past years. I'm not overstating it when I say we are allowing ourselves to be profoundly optimistic this will actually come to pass.

Then the latest study hit. A new Bank of Montreal release says the wealth of Canadian seniors has quadrupled since 1984. A Maclean's article asks: "Why are we doing so much to try to help seniors when they're already the wealthiest generation in history?" While 40 per cent of Canadian seniors lived in poverty in the 1970s, the article continues, that figure is now 5% due to their thrifty, conservative ways. On top of that seniors get subsidies at the expense of the younger (it argues), while more deserving (it implies) millennials just don't stand a chance of getting ahead.

Quoted economists claim that only brave policies such as clawing back the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), getting seniors to pay for their own health care, and shifting these benefits to younger generations -- "generation squeeze" -- will correct this. The idea of the vulnerable senior sector is a myth, they would have you think.

Suffice it to say, I don't agree. All seniors are not wealthy and we need to be careful assuming they are. Those who are have likely earned it the hard way. There was the depression. There were wars. People landed on our shores without a nickel in their pocket. Recessions weren't invented in 2008; seniors suffered through many busts in their lifetime.

Seniors did not sit in coffee shops lamenting their lot. They worked any job regardless of "lifestyle," did not travel, did not eat out, did not expect their first house to have en suites and walk-in closets, and yes, they reused string and foil, fixed things when they broke, and walked miles to school in winter.

Life was tough. For those seniors who have achieved a measure of wealth, they should not now have to quietly exit, stage left. And they should not have to pay again for what they have already banked in contributions through taxes or to services. That's the deal they made with society when they worked for their retirement.

More to the point, most seniors do not live the high life, and in any case, whether or not they have any assets is a lot of noise compared to the real issue, which is the availability of quality care, facilities and services.

If you want seniors to move on, you better have somewhere for them to go. While some lodges, homes and long term care facilities are fine, many are not.

Seniors ought to age in the community along with the rest of us, enabling socialization and access to resources that keep them mentally, physically, and most importantly, socially active. Bringing up the standard of the actual facilities that already exist would be a good place to start, but a longer term vision requires new models altogether. This would reduce the number of people inappropriately housed in hospitals and long care facilities.

Investing in homecare and supportive living would allow seniors some independence and self-actualization. Preventative physical and mental health programs are other areas where there are cost-effective, efficacious, evidence-based opportunities to prepare for this generation of aging Canadians.

We who work in the field of seniors' affordable housing are excited about the possibilities, and now it seems, we may have some opportunity to engage the province in these long needed initiatives. Alberta has an opportunity to do more than pay lip service to seniors' living conditions. I urge Premier Prentice to do as he has done already so decisively on other issues.

Please don't wait to start the job of ensuring seniors have safe, dignified, healthy environments. We are standing by with plans-in-hand.

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