Senior Toronto blog

December 30, 2019

Seniors and climate change

Droughts, heat waves, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, wildfires: climate change isn’t in the future any more, it’s already here. How will it affect seniors, and how should we respond?

We older adults feel the effects of extreme weather more than younger adults. Our aging bodies, limited mobility and sometimes our medications make us especially vulnerable to high temperatures, polluted air and vector-borne diseases. If the power goes out, we can’t use our electric medical devices or refrigerate our medications. If we live alone, we might not get the help we need to get through an extreme weather event. Remember the heat wave in France in 2003? Of the almost 15,000 people who died, 80% were seniors.

There are plenty of younger people who won’t be sorry to see us suffering from climate change, since our generation has caused it. Many of us now feel guilt over our inaction. But guilt is paralyzing. Somehow we have to turn that guilt into responsibility and action. What can we do?

We can certainly take action in our personal lives. We can recycle, go vegan, give up the car, use energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, fix things instead of throwing them away and so on. These gestures may help to quiet our conscience or deflect our grandchildren’s anger, and they’ll reduce our carbon footprint. But they won’t go far enough. Avoiding the worst impacts of climate disruption means changing the way the power sector operates, and implementing mitigation and adaptation policies both nationally and globally. The science is clear and can’t be denied any more. The ball is in the politicians’ court now. But the politics are complex and daunting. How many politicians are willing to pay up front for an uncertain result in the future, coordinate their policies with whose of other nations, and regulate and downsize a sector with the power of the fossil fuel industry? Not many, as we learned from the climate conference in Madrid a few weeks ago.

But the stakes are high, time is short, and we have to keep trying. At the very least, we need to vote out all the politicians who deny climate change, and those who talk a good game but don’t act. We have to let politicians know that climate change is a top priority now and we will or won’t vote for them depending on their climate policy. We also have to tell them that we accept what these policies may mean for us, in terms of higher prices, the disappearance of some jobs and creation of others, and maybe a shift in the economy away from growth. We have to keep learning and talking about climate change. We seniors need to leave a better legacy than climate disruption and chaos. The young people, marching in the streets in the thousands, are watching us.

November 30, 2019

Mall rats

Never mind teenagers; we seniors are the real mall rats. There we are marching up and down the aisles with our mall walking group, before the stores even open. Or we’re having a coffee in the food court and catching up on news with our friends. Or maybe we’re just relaxing on a bench, watching people go by. If you just want to get out of the house and while away a few hours, you can’t beat the neighbourhood mall. It’s safe from the weather, climate-controlled, it has washrooms and security guards and comfortable seating. We can just fit in with the crowds and stay as long as we like, with no admission fee to pay and no obligation to spend. It’s not what they were designed for, but neighbourhood malls have turned out to be wonderful, accessible gathering spots for seniors.

But times have changed. Major department stores that used to anchor these malls have disappeared. Many people now would rather shop online than take a trip to the store. Big box power centres and large upscale malls like the Eaton Centre and Yorkdale are still thriving, but many neighbourhood malls are in decline. Indoor malls are expensive to heat in winter and cool in summer. Some are trying to reinvent themselves. A few are building condos onsite, then surrounding them with medical offices, some basic stores, and maybe a community centre or small park. Some have decided to focus on the upscale and high-fashion youth market. We seniors may love our malls, but mall developers may not love us back. They’re not generating much profit from a senior who occupies a food court seat and just sits there sipping a cup of coffee for two hours. If they want to attract a hip younger crowd to the mall, then the presence of a lot of seniors spoils the vibe. The old Don Mills Centre was a magnet for the large local senior population. Redeveloped as the Shops at Don Mills, it’s now a grid of outdoor streets with trendy fashion stores for young people. They designed us right out of there.

All we seniors really need is an indoor mall with a food court. I hope at least some neighbourhood malls survive the changing times. I can’t imagine what could take their place as gathering spots for seniors.

October 29, 2019

Pie in the sky

If you’re a millennial, or middle-aged – in other words, a senior-to-be – then do your future self a favour, and start advocating for some of these policies. It won’t be easy, you’ll come into conflict with some powerful business interests, but you’re going to want these policies in place when you’re a senior. I’m not greedy; I’ve kept the list short.

  • Protect company pensions. Remember what happened to Sears pensioners? Sears had underfunded their pension plan. Then when they went bankrupt, whatever money they had went to their investors, and the pensioners got shafted. Insolvency legislation in Canada is not fair, balanced or equal when it comes to dealing with pensioners. Other creditors can negotiate terms to protect their interests, but pensioners can’t. So far, politicians have not agreed to force companies to fund their pension plans adequately or to move pensioners up in the queue on the creditor priority list.
  • Make extended healthcare affordable. Think of all those items not covered by OHIP: eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental care, mobility devices. Seniors need those things, and they’re all expensive. Unless you were a teacher or a government employee, you’re on the hook for all these costs when you retire. Insurance companies rig the system so that, for most seniors, the cost of the premiums is about the same as or more than the cost of the service. I went looking for research into the gap between the premiums people pay and the benefits they get paid back to them. In 2011, the most recent year I saw mentioned, Canadians were getting 74 cents for every dollar they paid. That’s down from 92 cents in 1991. Private insurance should be replaced with public alternatives, or there should be new stringent regulations imposed on the private insurance sector so that we get better value.
  • Build more not-for-profit long term care homes. Research has shown repeatedly that the quality of care is better in not-for-profit homes. They have lower mortality and hospitalization rates, and offer more hours of care per resident per day. But that’s not what we’re building. In Ontario, 60% of long term care homes are for-profit. Long term care is funded on a cost-shared basis with residents. Instead of using Ministry of Health money to fund private profits, we should be ensuring that all those public dollars are invested in quality care. Long term care homes should be run by local governments and not-for-profit groups.
  • Restore OHIP coverage for physiotherapy, chiropractic and eye examinations. In 2004, the Ontario government cut back OHIP coverage of physiotherapy, chiropractic, and some eye examinations. The impact of these cuts falls disproportionately on low-income seniors. These are services that help seniors recover from surgery and keep us functioning in the community. The OHIP physiotherapy clinics that are now offered to seniors provide only short group sessions, and are not a substitute for patient-centred care. These cuts were unjustified and should be reversed.

September 30, 2019

Programming for baby boomers

It’s been eight years since the oldest baby boomers turned 65. The population of retired boomers is really exploding now. Many of them have headed straight to the gym, especially in the daytime, working out with personal trainers, using fitness equipment, taking group classes. Some gyms have used the opportunity to develop programs specifically for seniors. Boomers have also been flocking to lifelong learning programs. Ryerson’s Life Institute has grown from a small community of a few hundred in 1991 to a membership of over 2500 today, attending over 200 courses offered throughout the year. Some of the other lifelong learning programs have been so overwhelmed with demand that they have to run waiting lists. So where are baby boomers not going? Well, they’re not going to senior centres.

As they’ve done throughout their lives, baby boomers are putting their own stamp on the culture as they move into retirement. They want to be fit, active and healthy, live longer, stay independent, be in control. They are interested in community involvement, but also value individual choice. Boomers take their recreation very seriously. They want challenge and are passionate about education and culture. They want their recreation to be wide-ranging and high-quality, with opportunities for competition, education, fitness, socializing, relaxation, and aesthetics. And above all, they do not think of themselves as old.

Senior centres, eager to get in on the action, have stripped the words “senior” and “elderly” out of their names. They call themselves Active Living Centres now. But look beyond the rebranding and you see pretty much the same old programs. Senior centres traditionally have focussed on the older old: seniors who are fragile, immobile or socially isolated. They try to help them feel part of the community by providing some socialization and light recreation. Some centres also provide a range of support services, such as homemaking help, assisted transportation, snow shoveling and telephone security checks. This group of seniors will continue to need these programs. But it’s hard to imagine how these centres, burdened with the stigma of the frail, needy senior, and operating on a shoestring, could expand to appeal to baby boomers. I think the richer opportunities lie with stigma-free organizations like community centres, public libraries, lifelong learning organizations and gyms, which just need to expand what they already do. That would keep the boomers happy until they reach their mid-70s or so, when energy and health start to wane and they have to slow down. Let’s see what they’ll want then.

August 30, 2019

Graywashing

I’ve been updating the Senior Centre listings on Senior Toronto, and I’m struck by all the name changes over the last few years. Senior Centres used to call themselves Senior Centres (and I still call them that on Senior Toronto). Then they became Elderly Persons Centres but that sounded, well, too elderly. So they perked up the titles and next we got Active Aging Centres. Now they’ve morphed into Active Living Centres. They’ve finally managed to stamp out any reference to the vile, shameful process of aging. Success at last!

Denial of aging runs deep in our culture. We’re constantly being urged to eat a healthier diet and to work out more than ever in old age. So if we deteriorate anyway, as most of us will, it will be our own fault. We’re bombarded with ads for anti-aging products and plastic surgery so that, when the inevitable happens, we hope the evidence will be erased. Seniors are celebrated only if they’re still mountain-climbing or bungee-jumping at 93; in other words, if they behave like young people.

What a fraud. Old age has its rewards but it’s undeniably a tough slog, a time of decline and loss, and it sure would help to live in a society that faced it head on. Instead, we have to confront ageism and stigma and graywashing. Instead of dealing with all the physical and mental and social changes that aging brings, we’re made to feel ashamed that we let this happen to us. So we’re emotionally unprepared for it and have trouble adjusting. We buy into the ageism that allows our society to duck its responsibility to us, to provide the medical care and home care and long term care that we will inevitably need. But our bodies know the clock is ticking, and we have to listen.

July 29, 2019

Hot summer days

It’s hot hot hot out there and I wish I could just stay home, but I have to get to physio for my decrepit back. A couple of years ago, it would have been a pleasant 20-minute walk, but now it’s like a trek across the Sahara. My aging body reacts in strange new ways to the heat. If I change direction, move my head down or to the side, or stop for a red light, I get dizzy and feel like I’m about to faint. If I grab a lamp post or manage to sit down for a couple of minutes, it passes. But what if it happens when I’m crossing the street?

So I’ve learned to walk slowly in the heat, lurching from lamp post to lamp post. I keep my head steady, moving my eyes but not my head as I go along. When I’m about 50 steps from the corner and it looks like the light is going to turn red, I slow down to a crawl. If I start to feel faint, I hang on to something and go up on my toes a few times. The family doctor says that will pump blood up to my head, and it does seem to help.

I feel like I’m made of tissue paper now, one strong gust and I’ll be ripped to pieces. I’m astounded at what it takes to propel this bag of bones down the street: all the exercising at home, determination and persistence, tolerance of pain. I wish I could pass a message to my younger self, the self that used to blow impatiently past those slowpokes on the sidewalk. Give them some respect and some elbow room, I’d say. Those people are tough; they have to be. It’ll be your turn before you know it.