Preparing for a rising tide of seniors
The daily, overwhelming problems that Coles and others like her face are multiplied by millions across the country and swell into every corner of society. We can’t foretell the future, but if we view certain trouble spots through the lens of the work done by University of Calgary researchers, we can gain a better understanding of how to move forward.
The brunt of caregiving for aging and ailing parents usually falls to women. Like Coles, they’re often members of the so-called “sandwich generation,” hard-pressed between parents and children. Unlike Coles, some look after parents who can stay in their own current home, but need help; others combine their households with their parents.
Mike Lang, MSc’15, who is now working on his PhD at UCalgary, launched the web series, Being There: Helping Caregivers See Their Place in the Story, in 2018 with the support of the TELUS Fund. There are more than 8 million active caregivers in Canada, most of whom are unrecognized and unpaid, and this number is expected to double within 20 years, he says.
This legion of unpaid caregivers is growing across Canada as the country braces for a tsunami of aging citizens. The population of seniors — those age 65 and over — is set to surge, boosted by aging baby boomers and increased life expectancy. And many caregivers will soon enough be seniors themselves — if they aren’t already.
In 2016, for the first time, the percentage of seniors in Canada (16.9 per cent) exceeded the percentage of children (16.6 per cent). There were 5.9 million people aged 65 and older in Canada, slightly more than the country’s 5.8 million children under 14.
The statistics are daunting. Over the next 20 years, Canada’s seniors’ population is expected to grow by 68 per cent. The 75-plus age group will double, including in Alberta where, by 2038, more than 1 million Albertans will be over the age of 65. In Calgary, the number of seniors is expected to grow to more than 280,000, or 15 per cent of the population, by 2042.
We’re in uncharted territory. Caregiving is just one slim tributary in a vast network of social undercurrents driven by an aging population. While the House of Commons has declared a national climate “emergency,” no such designation has yet been afforded the potential stormy weather brewing alongside an aging population.
According to Calgary’s Aging Population Report, the city of Calgary is “on the edge of a rising tide of seniors” that will impact our communities, challenge the way services are delivered, and alter housing and support services, health services, recreation, transit and more. And these changes will not just impact this city, but communities across Canada.
So, what’s the plan?
The City of Calgary’s Age-Friendly Strategy, launched in 2015, has a focus on seniors and includes UCalgary faculty on the steering committee. There’s a federal Ministry of Seniors Canada. The Province of Alberta has its own Ministry of Seniors and Housing. Quebec even has a Minister Responsible for Seniors and Informal Caregivers.
Dr. Yeonjung Lee, PhD, an associate professor in UCalgary’s Faculty of Social Work, says preliminary findings from her ongoing research project to identify the concerns of older adults in Calgary show that aging communities have grown rapidly and spread across the city.
There is recognition that splintered services for seniors can be improved. A March 2018 report by a team of UCalgary researchers, presented by the Kerby Centre, focused on caregiver perceptions of support programs in Calgary. Creating a one-stop shop for caregivers to navigate available services was among its recommendations for community-support bodies to consider.
Is the system that serves seniors, their families and caregivers byzantine? Yes, given the sheer size and breadth of services. For housing alone, senior living and care arrangements span a wide range at varying costs, from independent retirement living (typically private-pay) and assisted living, to residential care homes, Alzheimer’s and dementia care in nursing homes, along with government-subsidized options such as supportive housing and long-term care homes.
When speaking to anyone involved in dealing with our aging society, including caregivers, it’s clear there are no quick solutions. Study is required to understand the varied problems and lay the groundwork for implementing practical solutions.
University of Calgary researchers, graduates and alumni are already on the front lines.