The era of quiet, forbearing seniors is over

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Mon Oct 11 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

We watched our grandparents, the generation that fought the First World War and endured the Great Depression, reach old age assuming their children and the country to which they’d given so much would take of care of them.

In some cases, their daughters or daughters-in-law dutifully became their caregivers, despite young children and busy lives. In many cases, they went miserably to old age homes to die.

Then we watched our parents, the generation that fought the Second World War and fuelled the wave of prosperity that gave rise to medicare, old age pensions and the welfare state, reach old age believing they’d built a better elder care system.

They had, but it had fallen victim to cost-cutting politicians and business-trained efficiency experts. By the time our parents needed help, they had to navigate a maze of bureaucratic hurdles to get medical and social services. When their condition worsened and they required full-time nursing care, they had to queue up behind thousands of other frail, infirm seniors.

Now it’s our turn.

The generation to which I belong — the postwar baby boom — is heading into our senior years. We want better services for our parents and better choices for ourselves.

We’re not stoic like our grandparents. We’re not prepared to beg like our parents. And there are 6.9 million of us; 22 per cent of the voting population (probably more because we have a high propensity to vote).

Governments are aware of this. In recent years, they have made sporadic efforts to plug the holes in Canada’s elder care system. But most of their initiatives have been badly designed or grossly inadequate.

In 2004, the federal Liberals introduced a compassionate care benefit, allowing workers up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a gravely ill relative or friend. But when Canadians discovered they needed a doctor’s certificate stating that the person who needed their care was at “significant risk of death within 26 weeks,” they turned away in repugnance.

In 2007, the provincial Liberals introduced Ontario’s Aging at Home Strategy. It sounded promising: as much home care as seniors needed supplemented by Meals on Wheels, transportation and help with household chores.

But it turned out to be a mirage. With $700 million to spend, the government ended up rationing small amounts of home care to the neediest seniors and expecting overburdened voluntary agencies and family caregivers to do the rest.

In 2009, the federal Conservatives pledged to strengthen Canada’s retirement income system. So far, there have been studies, consultations and talks with the provinces, but no action.

This year, the oldest baby boomers turned 65. Their parents, if they’re still living, are in failing health. And the elder care system is bursting at the seams.

Seniors with dementia and severe disabilities are being warehoused in unregulated private retirement homes. They can’t get into government-supervised nursing homes because there is a backlog of 24,000 applications. Caregivers are burning out. Volunteers are pulling back.

But lately, there have been a few hopeful signs:

Last week, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff made his first firm social policy commitment. As prime minister, he would offer family caregivers $1 billion in assistance. Those eligible for employment insurance would be entitled to six months of paid leave — not six weeks — and the requirement that applicants provide medical proof that their loved was facing imminent death would be lifted. Caregivers outside the workforce would be eligible for a tax-free monthly payment of $112.50.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty vowed to take personal responsibility for protecting abused and neglected seniors.

And CARP, which is organizing boomers to create a Canadian grey power movement, took its message to Ottawa. It called for an increase in old age payments and a national caregiver strategy in next year’s budget.

It’s not a lot. But momentum will build. The baby boom generation has barely begun to flex its political muscle.

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