Isobel Mackenzie of the Office of the Seniors Advocate was in Kimberley on Tuesday, Feb. 14, as part of an East Kootenay tour, for a Town Hall meeting where she presented her scope of knowledge in the field and also heard the specific concerns from individual seniors of the community.
Mackenzie, who has a background in advocacy of nine years and around 25 years experience working in senior care in a variety of capacities, said she’s spent her entire professional life in the city. Now based in Victoria, she said that’s the smallest city she’s ever lived in.
“I can tell you that it was nothing short of humbling when I took on this role and had an opportunity to get out into non-city B.C. and meet non-City dwelling seniors in B.C. and see the resilience, the self sufficiency that our British Columbia seniors that live outside the cities have,” Mackenzie said.
“How modest the wants and expectations are of their government to help them and how even with those modest expectations they can’t be met.”
She added that some of the unique challenges faced by rural dwelling seniors, like transportation between Kimberley and Cranbrook in a snowstorm for example, aren’t apparent to decision makers in Victoria, and said these decision makers don’t get out of Victoria enough.
Mackenzie began the presentation with a breakdown of census data regarding seniors in the B.C.
There are now over a million people living in B.C., about one in five people, but looking at the Health Authority map of the province, it indicates that that number isn’t evenly distributed.
For instance, the Northern Health Region has a relatively young population at 15 per cent of the population over 65, whereas on the Island, or in the Interior, it’s relatively high at around 25 per cent. Certain communities, such as Creston, it’s even higher.
No two communities are quite the same, with different proportions of seniors and their own unique challenges.
B.C. is one province in terms of its government, but it is not one province in terms of what its geography is like, or its people,” Mackenzie said.
She also showed a snapshot of data indicating how seniors in B.C. live. For instance, 95 per cent of people over 65 live independently, and even after age 85 the vast majority of people, 77 per cent, still live on their own. Only nine per cent of people 85 live in assisted living or retirement homes, where residents likely take one or two of their meals with other people and are still highly independent.
Only 15 per cent of people 85 and over live in nursing homes in B.C.
“While it is important that we have good quality care in our care homes, while it is important that when somebody needs a care home bed it is available for them, overwhelmingly the majority of you in this room, perhaps everybody in this room, will never be in a nursing home bed.”
Around 80 per cent of seniors are homeowners, and that number is higher in rural areas like Kimberley. Mackenzie said that while people talk about the housing crisis in B.C., it is a different housing crisis for seniors.
The most significant challenge is that there few, if any, places to rent in communities like Kimberley. So a person who wants to sell their house, and can get some money in doing so, to move to a smaller home like a condo, are unable to do so.
“The government has to grapple with what is its role in creating housing in rural B.C. for people who can afford to buy a place, but there’s no place suitable for them to buy,” Mackenzie said.
Mackenzie also gave a breakdown of the average senior’s income, dispelling the stereotype that “all old people are rich.”
“Most seniors actually don’t have much money and it is surprising to some,” she said.
She explained that while the average yearly income of a senior in B.C. is $47,000, the median income is actually $34,000 and 80 per cent of seniors do not have an income as high as the B.C. average.
“What that tells is that there are a group of extremely high income earning seniors pulling that average up,” Mackenzie said.
Fifty per cent of seniors live on an income equal to or less than minimum wage. In B.C. 94 per cent of the labour force make more than minimum wage.
With the supports that seniors have, such as the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP), Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Support (GIS), there are also challenges.
For example, 62 per cent of B.C. seniors don’t have gold plated pension plans. Mackenzie explained that to get the maximum CPP of $14,000 a year — with the average actually being $800 a month — someone would have to start work at 22 and work for 42 years at the yearly maximum pensionable earnings (YMPE) of $64,000.
Most people don’t work the full required years or don’t work the full years at the YMPE and so do not get a full pension.
With the average savings of a B.C. senior being $50,000, the fact that most don’t have private extended health plans, the lack of comprehensive provincial programs to provide dental care, glasses hearing, aids and other medical equipment and the shortcomings of things like CPP, Mackenzie said that the cost of aging is under appreciated.
Additionally, the fact that nearly two thirds of people admitted to long-term care had no home support before their admission is a “stunning indictment” of the failure of the BC Home Support System to support people.
The Home Support Program is low level help for seniors, but that many can’t live without. B.C. is one of the few programs that charges for it and charges the most at $9000. Many seniors can’t afford this and so are moved into long-term care where 80 per cent of their income is taken.
Following her presentation, Mackenzie took questions from the group of around 35 who came to the Town Hall.
To many, the response was for them to take their challenges to their local government representatives, Mayor and Council and their MLA, and urge them to hear their concerns and take them higher up the ladder.
“I am just one person, I don’t have powers to make anybody do anything other than give me information and then I can issue reports and recommendations to government and try and get things to resonate with people,” Mackenzie said. “I think it will get better, in part because more people are getting older.”
The oldest baby boomer, she added, is now 76 and are overwhelmingly still healthy and not really using the health care system. However, in the last ten years, these same people have likely cared for their parents and have experienced the shortcomings themselves and know what challenges they will be faced with.
To learn more about the Office of the Seniors Advocate and to access the many resources they have available, visit seniorsadvocatebc.ca
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