I was present at a talk recently given by British Columbia’s Seniors’ Advocate, Isobel Mackenzie. Given all the media focus that seniors in long-term care received during the pandemic, I was anxious to learn what she sees as the major challenges facing seniors in the coming decade.
The advocate began by pointing out the size of various cohorts of people over 65. There are slightly over one million B.C. residents aged 65 or more. Some 93% of these people live independently, but in the group aged 85 or more, only 72% live independently. Just over 90% have a driver’s licence at age 65 but only 36% maintain their license after age 85. So, once you reach 85 your mobility will be reduced and you will probably be living alone.
Another important fact is that between 2014 and 2018, the total number of BC seniors aged 65 plus grew 17%. But if you segment this big group into cohorts, the number of those between 65 and 84 grew at 18% and those 85 plus grew at 12%.
Most importantly, in 2018 the cohort aged 65 to 84 numbered almost 800,000 while those aged 85 or older totalled just over 115,000. Why is that important? Because it heralds the arrival in the next decade of the baby boomers, those born of the period born between 1945 and 1960, at the period of their lives when they will require the most support.
As boomers begin to swell the ranks of the frail elderly, the incidence of illnesses and disability, including dementia (which increases from 3% for those aged 65 to 84 to 20% for those aged 85 and over) will balloon. In short, in the next decade a silver-haired tsunami will be become a significant factor in the healthcare system.
The critical issues facing many seniors, particularly those aged 85 or more, are: suitable and accessible accommodation, maintaining mobility, preserving independent living and, for some, insufficient income to meet basic living costs. With the median income of all people 65-plus being just under $30,000, even with the Guaranteed Income Supplement, many will be living in poverty. This disadvantaged group is likely to constitute at least 10% of the 85-plus population.
Accommodation is becoming particularly difficult for long-term renters who have benefited from a provincial regime of rent control (which limits annual increases to below 3%) as costs rise in virtually all parts of the province.
If, for example, you are forced to move because your landlord wants to renovate or convert the building to a condominium after you have occupied a rent-controlled apartment for, say, 25 years you could face a real quandary. Other housing options are likely substantially more expensive than the rent-protected dwelling. New rental apartments reflect current market prices.
Quite probably, many targets of renoviction will effectively become wards of the state unless a greater number of lower-cost accommodation units becomes available. Housing people in long-term care facilities is very expensive, typically $60,000 per year per person. So, more thought has to be put into building lower-cost accommodation suitable for the elderly and bolstering community supports to avoid long-term care.
You may well ask why so little attention was focused pre-pandemic on the needs of the frail elderly portion of the population. One simple answer is that they represented a relatively small percentage of the population. But, as significant numbers of baby boomers join their ranks with their long-demonstrated proclivity to expect and demand abundant services, this could change.
What needs to be done now is the development of policy focused on meeting these demands and showing how they can be financed. That will, in turn, require a realignment of public expenditures and/or increased taxes, of which well-heeled boomers may be able pay a significant portion. Only thoughtful and comprehensive thinking and discussion can yield satisfactory solutions to a problem that has been long in coming and long denied – but which is now at BC’s doorstep.
David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.