04/18/2012 11:43 EDT | Updated 06/18/2012 05:12 EDT

This Alberta Election, the Senior Vote Is Golden

During the last provincial election in Alberta there was an abysmal voter turnout rate of 40.6 per cent. But this was not the case with voters over the age of 65 who voted in significantly higher numbers. And political parties took notice.

Routinely, three out of four Alberta seniors can be counted on to vote in municipal, provincial and federal elections. This contrasts sharply with the 45 per cent of reliable voters between the ages of 25 and 44.

At first blush, this could seem less than relevant, given that Alberta's seniors population is only approximately 425,000, or about eight per cent of the total population. But when you take into account that just over 940,000 Albertans are too young to vote, that leaves 2.27 million eligible voters for the forthcoming provincial election -- and almost one in five are seniors.

More important are the vast number of soon-to-be-seniors on the horizon.

The first baby boomers turned 65 last year. Over the next 25 years, the population of Alberta seniors is set to double. This generation is beginning to think ahead to their retirement years, and wonder what the government has in store for them when they become seniors. With the federal government's recent rise in Old Age Security (OAS) criteria to age 67 from 65, many people are wondering if provincial governments will have to pick up some of the slack.

In other words, the provincial election in Alberta will come down to seniors' issues.

But even generations X and Y, who won't be seniors for some time, should pay attention and care about seniors' issues this time around. They are the generations most likely to be hit hard with any poorly conceived and implemented policies to deal with the coming boom of seniors. If political parties promise in abundance, they'll be the ones picking up the tab. Increased taxes, a longer time in the workforce and insufficient services are the future they may see in front of them.

Simply put, all generations need to pay attention to how the parties are wooing seniors in this election.

So what are the issues of importance to current Alberta seniors?

Seniors in Alberta, as elsewhere across the country, say they are worried about the accessibility and ease of transportation as they age. They need affordable and accessible public transportation to get to doctors' appointments, grocery stores and social outings. As their health and mobility concerns increase, they also need to rely on increased availability of home care to be able to stay in their homes and remain independent as long as possible. Ensuring that home care is readily available will be one way governments can control costs, as providing home care is less expensive than supportive living or long-term care.

Many seniors are on multiple medications, so they are also concerned about drug costs, as well as easy and equitable access to the health care system. They want to see caps on their medication costs, so that these costs are reasonable, and they also want to see enough doctors in the system, especially those with a specialization in gerontology. The 2009 Senate Special Committee on Aging noted this lack of gerontologists in Canada, with only 211 available across Canada when as many as 538 are estimated to be needed.

Seniors, and soon-to-be seniors, also want to be safe-guarded against abuse, including financial, physical and emotional abuse.

It is not an option to simply "warehouse" our seniors -- we need to create policies that frame them as untapped community resources, not burdens, and invite them to be part of the solution. Seniors want to be valued for their experience and wisdom and stay connected to their communities.

It's pretty clear that the political parties are acutely aware of this powerful senior voting block and are busy laying the foundations of their policies to appeal to this cohort. Candidates of all parties are frequent visitors to seniors' lodges and residences, and announcements of seniors' policy issues are made regularly across the political spectrum.

So while the media focus on the election has tended toward campaign foibles, personality wars, ideology and even energy policy, it may well be that it is Alberta's seniors and soon-to-be seniors -- thinking about their future and hoping for robust policies that address and understand their priorities -- who will sway the vote on April 23rd.