Seniors get bad rap on health – Opinion – Seniors get bad rap on health
January 18, 2009. Gillian Steward

Ambulance sirens still wail, patients still wait for hours in hospital emergency departments. Life goes on as Canadians worry about an ailing economy and bankers and politicians try to stop the bleeding.

No matter what governments do to preserve jobs or help those who are laid off, they will still have to come up with sufficient funds to maintain the public health-care system. Demand won’t likely decrease, neither will the cost of staff, drugs, technology and facilities.

So we are likely to hear a lot about the need to cut existing health-care programs, or pull back on projected spending for hospitals and health regions.

And, no doubt, the private health-care sector will be pushing for more facilities and programs where patients can pay out-of-pocket as a way to take pressure off taxpayers and the public purse.

We will be told that as the population ages we simply won’t be able to afford our public health-care system; that it will collapse under the strain of all those graying baby boomers flooding into hospital for expensive care.

But is this true? Or is it one of those myths that sounds right but isn’t actually so?

Donna Wilson, a professor and avid researcher at the University of Alberta’s faculty of nursing, argues that as a group, the baby boomers are much healthier than generations before them. And by mining various national and provincial databases, she has also found that the widespread belief that old people have been clogging up emergency departments (and therefore will continue to do so) simply doesn’t hold up.

Her research shows that in recent years only 14 per cent of people seeking emergency care in hospitals were seniors; 86 per cent are under age 65. She also found that only 20 per cent of people admitted to hospital in Canada were seniors.

The myth edges closer to reality when we consider length of stay once an older person is admitted to hospital: Seniors account for 53 per cent of hospital in-patient days. But often this is because there is no room in subacute or rehab facilities, or no provision for home care. Yet all these options are less costly than hospital care.

Wilson also came up with some other statistics that show most seniors are an independent lot. Only about 7 per cent of seniors living at home need help with daily chores. Only 4 per cent of seniors live in nursing homes. It’s the frail elderly, usually people into their 80s, who need the most attention, says Wilson.

And here’s another myth buster.

According to a report prepared by Gerard Boychuk, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo, Albertans are more resistant to private funding for health care and private health insurance than people in other provinces. That may be because the Klein government aroused fierce opposition with some ham-fisted approaches to health-care reform, including elimination of some nursing homes and other public health-care facilities in rural areas.

Alberta doesn’t have a large a population of seniors compared to most other provinces. But many of those seniors and their families were at the forefront of the opposition to Klein’s proposed reforms. Most of them were Conservatives who also happen to like public health care.

So perhaps politicians shouldn’t look to the graying baby boomers as a burden to the health-care system but as a defiant bunch who won’t stand for reforms that put their health in jeopardy.

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