Seniors are valued members of society

While we talk about supporting people as they age, we aren’t delivering.

By Dr. David Hay

Too often, seniors are seen as some sort of burden.  In fact, they are raising grandchildren, volunteering and contributing in a wide variety of ways.

We don’t begrudge other sectors of society – like young parents – support; we shouldn’t deny seniors basic community supports, or see them as a health care “issue.”

Seniors aren’t problems to be managed, and aging is not an illness.  But too often we talk about older British Columbians that way, in terms both inaccurate and demeaning.

There are certainly challenges in growing older.  But nothing happens at 65 that suddenly makes someone less of a person.

Seniors contribute a great deal.  Like everyone else, they work, volunteer, support family members, nurture friendships, pursue hobbies and interests, and participate in community life.

In B.C., more than 10,000 children are being raised by their grandparents with not a lot of support — a great challenge and contribution.

Yes, many British Columbians require society’s support as they age.  But so do people of all ages – families needing day care, university students needing bursaries, commuters needing good roads and everyone needing health care.

Yet, somehow, support for seniors tends to be viewed as a special burden.

Admittedly, demographics create some challenges.  In 2001, there were 135,000 British Columbians over 80.  By 2011, there were 197,000, a 46 per cent increase in 10 years.

Similar increases lie ahead; by 2036, one in four of us will be over 65.

While we talk about supporting people as they age, we aren’t delivering.  The B.C. Ombudsperson reported last year that the number of publicly subsidized residential care beds increased by 3.4 per cent between 2002 and 2010.

Meanwhile, the population over 80 — the main client base — increased by 34 per cent.  (Home support services also failed to keep up with the growth in the over-80 population.)

Those of us in the community social services sector know it is a mistake to think seniors’ needs revolve around health care, as if aging is an illness.

Families do great work helping their elders.  But not everyone has family members nearby, and often, professional skills are required.

That’s when the agencies that employ thousands of expert, dedicated people in the community social services sector take over.

They support seniors in their homes.  They help with shopping and meals.

They provide physiotherapy, and counselling on everything from medications and health to emotional issues.

Our work produces pragmatic benefits.  For example, while it costs $72,000 a year to provide residential care (shared between seniors and government), a few hours a week of home support can help people stay independent at a fraction of that expense.

Community support is the best way to reduce demands on the health care system.

But really, this is about doing what’s right.  Seniors should be supported in their desire to live full, rich lives, and contribute.

Our commitment also has to extend to the professional, dedicated people who provide the support. The number of seniors has been increasing, but government support has not kept up.

Frontline workers have been increasingly stressed and stretched, and seniors have suffered from reduced care.

It’s good that we recognize our elders through National Seniors Day, Oct. 1.

But seniors don’t really need a day, or a press release.  They need a citizenry and a government that treat them as valued people, not problems.

When that happens, every day will be seniors’ day.  And we will be a stronger society.

David Hay is the Executive Director of the Federation of Community Social Services of BC.

He is writing on behalf of the Roundtable of Provincial Social Services, an umbrella group of private and non-profit agencies and other stakeholders.