05/21/2015 02:32 EDT | Updated 05/21/2016 05:59 EDT

Seniors' advocate says some B.C. elderly giving up basic needs to afford housing

VANCOUVER - Even as Lorraine Logan and her partner chip away at their condominium mortgage in New Westminster, B.C., the 70-year-old recognizes they could lose their security and comfort.

"If something happens to one of us?" she said, slapping one hand against the other. "It's got to be sold. Two incomes supporting the mortgage, right? So we're just trying to build up equity before I die!"

The couple is among 93 per cent of British Columbia seniors who are living independently as an aging population faces systemic challenges.

On Thursday, the province's seniors' advocate released a comprehensive report that found housing for older British Columbians must be more affordable, appropriate and available.

Isobel Mackenzie urged the government to accept 18 recommendations after canvassing thousands of seniors across B.C. over the past year.

"I really have made it my mission to disabuse people of this notion that all seniors out there are living high off the hog, on a beach in Barbados, and sucking dry all the hardworking British Columbians," she told a news conference packed with seniors.

"There are seniors who need a lot of help and who are in desperate need. That's what happens when you look at the data instead of just deciding what the situation is by looking around at the people you know."

The report outlines the major challenges weighing on seniors living in each of three situations — independent, assisted living and residential care — and found the support people need most is financial.

Among about 820,000 British Columbians aged 65 or older, half live on incomes of $24,000 per year or less, according to the report.

Mackenzie found some low-income seniors forego basic health care, from dentistry to hearing aids, compression stockings or incontinence supplies.

"So, great. You live in a house that's worth a million dollars in Vancouver," she said.

"If your income is only $22,000 a year, it actually doesn't matter how much your house is worth because what you actually need is money to pay the bills."

Among other recommendations, the report calls on the province to:

— Increase subsidies through the Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters program.

— Develop a strategy for more rural housing.

— Implement a program allowing homeowners to defer paying hydro, home insurance and for major repairs until their home is sold.

— Redesign the Registered Assisted Living program to accommodate more seniors, including palliative care.

— Commit to providing a single room with ensuite bathroom for 95 per cent of residential care beds by 2025.

Housing Minister Rich Coleman declined an interview, but a statement from the ministry said the report is being reviewed.

"Many of the recommendations, if adopted, would require extensive policy work and possibly, changes to legislation," said the statement, which did not provide a time frame.

Brian Dodd, with the Seniors Services Society, said the report is meaningful though it didn't provide immediate solutions for homeless seniors.

"It gives us hope, because if some of these things are acted on there will be more tools for us to take someone from homelessness to home."

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