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Being old ain't what it used to be

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"Old age is not for sissies," said Bette Davis. Indeed, it is not, but the images from our childhood of what it meant to be "old" have changed dramatically. Of course, as I enter my 60th year, my perspective on what it means to be "old," of necessity, shifts. As another popular aphorism, puts it "the hardest thing to decide is when middle age begins." Thanks to advances in health care and a focus on healthy living, Canadians are living longer. And today's senior has different issues and challenges than in our grandparents' day. I see it every day, as my riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands is one of those with the highest proportion of older citizens. While so much in the mass media sees only the negatives of this aging demographic, there is much to celebrate.

The group Moses Znaimer calls "zoomers" are not abandoning their love of tennis or skiing. The aging population is increasingly embracing the benefits of staying involved, especially as they give back to community through the donations of thousands of hours of volunteer work.

That is, of course, not to deny the challenges. Today's seniors want to know that pension and retirement savings are adequate to maintain an active lifestyle. The Green Party supports expansion of the Canada Pension Plan. CPP is sustainable and reliable. It is time to review whether RRSP is working as a vehicle. Evidence suggests its uptake is very limited, it has a large impact on government revenues and yet it seems to benefit primarily those Canadians who least need it.

Staying active is challenging in a car dominated culture. An aging population increases the need for convenient, accessible, mass transit. As it becomes less safe to drive at night, seniors want access to public transit.

The most extreme challenges of aging are experienced by seniors living in poverty, a disproportionate proportion of whom are women. While the percentage of seniors living in poverty dropped dramatically from a high of approximately 30 per cent in 1976, to a low of 4.7 per cent in 2007, the poverty rates for seniors have begun to move up once again 5.8 per cent in 2008. We cannot be complacent about the economic struggles of our seniors.

Meanwhile, the widely-repeated claim that the growth in aging Canadians as a proportion of our population will drive up health-care costs is not supported by the evidence. Empirical evidence suggests that the aging population is not a major cause of increased costs. According to the Canadian Institute of Health Information: "Analyses of the drivers of increases in public sector health expenditures over the last decade showed that the contribution of aging has been relatively modest. To date, system-level cost drivers such as inflation and increased utilization have played bigger roles in health spending increases," according to Health Care Cost Drivers: the facts, CIHI, November 2011.

The largest single driver for increased health-care costs is the rising cost of pharmaceutical drugs. We are all too often seeing evidence of over-prescription of drugs, and registration of drugs that actually will harm more people than they help. While seniors are wrongly seen as the reason for increasing health-care costs, the reality is that seniors are particularly vulnerable to the excess use of prescription drugs.

That is not to say that our health-care system is ready for an increase in the diseases of aging, particularly dementia and Alzheimer's. We need to significantly improve supports for family members. So often a senior becomes the full-time caregiver for their spouse. Particularly, seniors of limited means lose any potential for enjoying life as they sacrifice for their partner. Better respite programs, better supports for home care, as well as more beds in long-term senior care facilities are needed, with supports from both federal and provincial governments.

We also need to have a conversation about the loss of basic rights experienced by seniors in care. One of the most shocking trends that I have uncovered since becoming an MP is the loss of basic human rights for seniors in residential care. Shockingly, I have heard dozens of stories of seniors being denied access to family members, being placed on drugs they do not want, and even being denied the right to go home to family members who would welcome them.

And lastly, we need to grasp the nettle of the thorny ethical problem of assisted suicide and the right to die with dignity. The solutions will not be simple because the problems are complex. Nevertheless, Canadians are demanding better answers. We need to engage in a respectful, informed discussion starting with a review of the various legal regimes in use around the world. We need to ensure that discussion is grounded in bioethics and premised on an acute awareness of the slippery slope of creating the impression that some human lives are worth more than others. What we must not do is to continue to ignore the suffering of well-informed, adult Canadians who wish to make a choice to die with dignity in their own country.

This article was originally printed on Elizabeth May's blog and in the Hill Times, where it first appeared.



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