With unavoidable costs looming, it’s time to re-examine seniors’ expendable perks

Posted on August 20, 2013 in Social Security Debates

VancouverSun.ca – opinion
August 19, 2013.   Don Cayo

If, as most Canadians fear, our governments soon won’t be able to afford the health services our fast-growing population of seniors is sure to need, isn’t it time to ask whether older citizens really need all the perks they already get?

I’m talking in part about things like seniors’ discounts, some of which I find hard to justify. But beyond those, I’m talking about policies that seem to have more to do with wooing votes than solving problems.

For example, two years ago when the feds raised the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors who rely almost entirely on government for their income, it was cast as a move to counter those four years of creeping increases in elder poverty that had set in after 20 years of sharp reductions. In reality, the amounts — $600 a year for single seniors and $840 for couples — were too small to lift poor singles above the poverty line, and most of the $300 million the initiative cost went to couples, who were already above it.

Similarly, the benefits of Ottawa’s recent income splitting policies are worth close to $10,000 a year for some high-income seniors who don’t need it, and as little as $200 for poor folks who do.

An overdue discussion of such policies is even more timely in light of an alarming poll released Monday by the Canadian Medical Association. The survey, done by Ipsos Reid, found six Canadian in 10 — almost seven in 10 in B.C. — doubt the health care system can cope as millions of baby boomers enter their so-called golden years.

This has led to a predictable call for “a comprehensive strategy” to keep old people in their homes as long as possible. In other words, spend money now — preferably on a proponents’ pet project — in the hope of saving in the long term.

Of course, there’s wisdom to such a strategy done right. The problem is, it’s often done wrong.

Public policies in Canada already go some distance to help people “age in place,” but the idea of keeping seniors in their “own” homes is often interpreted to mean staying in their “old” home. And I don’t think this makes sense.

North Vancouver realtor Dave Watts, who has sold a lot of old homes in his career, speaks sadly — and I believe, wisely — about the many seniors he has seen who are trapped in homes they can’t physically or financially maintain.

“Older people, especially when they become widows or widowers, can become prisoners to their house,” he told me a couple of years ago when we discussed this. “They don’t engage with their contemporaries, because their contemporaries have either died or are in a condo or a care home.”

Another downside of this — aside from the onerous stress it places on the seniors involved — is it keeps so many family homes off the market. When seniors are left rattling around in big homes they don’t need and can’t care for, it drives young families further into the suburbs, or it forces them to settle for less suitable homes.

Yet governments pump massive sums into dragging out seniors’ transitions to more sensible housing. They allow deferred property tax payments at very low interest rates, which both subsidizes many who don’t need it and entices many who do to remain house-poor for a few more years. They help pay for expensive retrofits to make inappropriate old homes a little more senior-friendly. They subsidize property taxes, and provide in-home services even when the home is unsuitable, which means its occupant will need more help than might otherwise be the case.

I don’t advocate coercion. But if policies encouraged seniors into more appropriate housing it would do a number of things. It would leave most with more money, and thus better able to care for themselves. It would provide well-designed homes that are safer, and easier to manage and maintain, and thus the occupants would need less outside help. It would increase the supply of family housing and take a little pressure off prices. And it would leave governments with more to spend on decent end-of-life care when the time comes.

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