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Alberta's Budget Is Short On Details And Funding For Seniors

11/20/2015 11:57 EST | Updated 11/20/2016 05:12 EST
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Senior woman with a crutch getting support from nurse. Lower section.

Older Adult Council of Calgary gives new government a B- on the seniors' file

It was a disappointing budget low on details for Alberta's fastest growing demographic -- seniors. The percentage of seniors in Alberta is currently about 10 per cent and is estimated to double to 20 per cent by 2041. Even though Calgary is seen as a "young" city, our own demographic mix will mirror that of the province.

The Older Adult Council of Calgary (OACC) advocates and serves this growing seniors population, and we can see there was both good and bad for older adults in the recent budget.

First, the good. Drug ($558 million), dental, vision and supplementary health benefits ($122 million total) were increased for older adults in this budget, although it is not known if it is new funding or just re-allocated. Homecare will also be expanded, with a new model to be phased in in 2017-18. Again, details are thin on just what that model will look like. The province is hoping by this to keep older adults in their homes as long as possible. Aging in place is a good goal, but it can lead to undiagnosed physical or mental issues, as well as social isolation. Aging in community is a better goal, where seniors can participate and contribute to the communities they live in, whether that be private dwellings or communal seniors housing.

A long-awaited expansion to long-term care spaces was also announced, creating 2,000 new spaces, with attached operating funding. But it's not just more space that we need; it's also better quality and consistent standards between facilities. The recent survey released by the Health Quality Council of Alberta on family experiences of long-term care providers reported no significant change in overall ratings from 2010 to 2014-15 for 94.8 per cent of the facilities while the rest experienced a decrease. Families recommended more staff, better food, better cleanliness and upkeep, and access to other healthcare services. With a province-wide average rating of 8.3 out of 10, we still have room for improvement here.

Now, the areas of concern. If the province also invested more in preventative supports and services, such as programs on falls prevention and better medication reviews and monitoring, costly unnecessary or inappropriate trips to hospital emergency rooms could be reduced.

When it comes to other seniors housing, the report is mixed. Dementia spaces will be a priority along with long-term care spaces, which is much-needed and overdue. Hopefully the government will also make keeping a married couple together a priority as well. Couples are currently being split up when one needs acute dementia care and the stories and separation are heartbreaking. While it is encouraging that the province sees the need for investment in older facilities, some of these may be better re-purposed or even rebuilt as they are coming to the end of their natural life-cycle. An aging population living in aging buildings is not a recipe for quality of life.

The fact that the Affordable Supportive Living Initiative (ASLI) program will no longer be funded after 2014-15 is worrying. It's true that the Alberta Social Housing Corporation gets a big boost in capital spending to $168 million from $88 million, with $78 million of that earmarked for seniors housing. What remains unknown is the mix of type of seniors housing (independent or supportive living, private or non-profit) that will receive funding.

Additional affordable seniors housing -- especially affordable independent and supportive living -- will definitely be needed over the next 20 years as the older adult population doubles in Calgary.

The budget does include funding for a mental health strategy, as well as an addictions strategy, which is an excellent move forward. However, OACC members know that mental health issues for the older adult population can be extremely complex and can be tied to housing. If older adults with mental illness and/or addictions live in communal settings, their housing can be put at risk without proper and specialized treatment. We urge the government to ensure older adults are included in both strategies as a key population group.

If we were to grade the government on its first budget with respect to seniors, we'd give it a B-. A good start, but this new government will need to try harder to provide the growing population of Alberta seniors with a comfortable, safe and affordable future.

Janice Curtis is CEO of Calgary Meals on Wheels and Lawrence Braul is the CEO of Trinity Place Foundation. Both sit as members of the Steering Committee of the Older Adult Council of Calgary.

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