Caring for aging boomers
TheStar.com – Opinion/editorial – Caring for aging boomers
November 15, 2008
Alzheimer’s disease. A bad stroke. These are the things we expect will send seniors into nursing homes. But what about not being able to mow the lawn or shop for groceries? A lack of home care and community supports means difficulty with these simple tasks can force seniors from their homes into an institutional life long before it’s necessary, argues this year’s Atkinson Fellowship writer Judy Steed.
Steed’s eight-day series, which ends today, chronicles the crisis Canada faces as our population bulge of baby boomers age into their senior years. We’re on the precipice. If we don’t change the way we fund care for the elderly, it will bankrupt us all.
The consequences of not providing enough home care – from basic assistance to the medically necessary – isn’t just a depressing loss of independence for seniors, though that’s bad enough. It is also an ever-growing financial millstone around all our necks.
Some community care managers say they could “do wonders” keeping seniors happy and healthy at home with a few thousand dollars more. The default option, which occurs too often, is a nursing home for the vastly greater sum of $43,000 annually.
The stage in between can be even pricier: a hospital bed costing up to $1,200 a night. And when seniors wind up in an emergency room, doctors may not even know how to help them. Of the 8,000 hours of training medical students get, just 60 hours are in geriatrics. When an ambulance pulls up to the hospital with a senior, a common assumption is a heart attack. A battery of expensive tests are ordered and the emergency ward gets backed up.
The answer is often much simpler: drugs. Seniors take way too many drugs, often prescribed by various specialists, with no one paying attention to the overall picture. A quarter of women over 65 are on at least five medications, and many are on 10 or even 20, reports Steed. It’s no wonder seniors are confused by all the pill bottles on their dressers and often take them incorrectly, or not at all.
At every turn, Steed’s series shines a spotlight on a system that fails seniors and taxpayers. Seniors are forced into costly, and unpleasant, nursing homes, they’re given medical care by doctors who have little specialized training, and they’re regularly medicated into oblivion.
The system must be flipped around to focus on early intervention and prevention. This may require help from the federal government, which has done little to date.
Ottawa should consider a national home care program, sharing the costs with the provinces, as Steed recommends, and a national drug agency to monitor prescriptions.
In addition to these concrete initiatives, there’s a more elusive problem to face. As we rush through our busy lives, we look forward to the kids growing up and to retirement. But as a great many of us will live decades past retirement – the boomers will be the healthiest and longest-living cohort to date – what will we do with ourselves? There are only so many rounds of golf that can be played.
Society has to find ways to encourage seniors to stay involved and to value the contributions they make, because loneliness and boredom can be as devastating as the physical indignities that come with age.