Senior Toronto blog

September 30, 2021

Fall programs

The pandemic is still with us, but we’re learning to live with it. Thanks to vaccines, masks, social distancing and Zoom, there are lots of fitness, recreation and social programs available for seniors this fall. Bear in mind that if you want to attend an in-person program at a community centre, you will have to produce proof of full vaccination, fill out a Covid screening questionnaire and wear a mask inside the building.

Toronto Parks Forestry and Recreation released their fall 2021 program on September 22. There’s no Fun Guide, so you’ll have a bit more work finding programs. You can search by facility name or drill down through their category list. You can also search the Senior Toronto listings on this website to find out which centres are offering which programs. There are fewer options than there were pre-Covid, and almost all their programs are in-person. You’ll find lots of variety, everything from fitness to crafts, sports and games. If you want to attend a drop-in program, you’ll have to reserve a spot online each time you go; this enables the administrators to control the numbers and maintain social distancing.

It’s a bit surprising that Parks Forestry and Recreation are not offering any virtual programs for seniors, considering that many seniors do not feel safe going to in-person programs. But luckily, we have other options. Senior centres, neighbourhood centres, non-Parks Forestry and Recreation community centres and community health centres also provide programming for seniors. This year, most of them are offering a mix of in-person and virtual programs. There are plenty of virtual fitness, recreation and social programs to choose from, and a lot of them are free. They are all listed here on the Senior Toronto website; just search on the term you are interested in, like “yoga”, and they will all come up. As for those organizations which also provide health and social services for seniors, they are maintaining key services like health care, food access and assisted transportation. Health care and social support programs are virtual where possible; otherwise, in-person appointments are available on an urgent basis only.

Should seniors go to in-person programs? There’s a lot to consider. Many seniors have impaired immune systems, so even if you are vaccinated, you may not have good immunity. To find out, you have to ask your doctor for a requisition to get a Covid antibody blood test, which you have to pay for. Even if you have good immunity, you can still get Covid and pass it on to others. Now that we know that Covid is transmitted through tiny droplets in the air, think about the air quality in community centres. I haven’t seen any announcements of grants to community centres for the expensive Hepa filters needed to clear the air. Those centres are full of unvaccinated kids. People are mostly wearing poor-quality cloth masks which don’t fit properly and are next to useless at preventing transmission. We should be wearing N95 masks, but good luck finding any. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to in-person classes. Just do your research and decide what’s best for your situation.

August 29, 2021

Reverse ageism

We seniors know all about ageism: we live with it every day. But it turns out we’re not the only group being discriminated against because of age.

Increasingly, young people face discrimination too, particularly in the workplace. It’s not just that they are expected to stay humble as they learn the ropes from their more experienced colleagues. Today’s millennials and Gen Z workers also have to confront the perceptions that they are lazy, entitled, and disloyal – views that can hold them back in their careers.

Negative attitudes towards young people may extend beyond the workplace. Are we retired seniors guilty of reverse ageism? Have we ever doubted the competence of a young doctor or physiotherapist or counsellor, thereby creating barriers to treatment? Have we ever contemptuously dismissed the young because we think they lack the maturity and understanding that we feel can only come with experience?

Sometimes we seniors may disparage young people and dismiss their views, because we feel our life experience makes our own views more valid. In some respects, this may be true. Through a lifetime of experience, observation, building relationships and testing ourselves, many seniors have developed a deep understanding of human nature, what motivates people, what gives most satisfaction in life, how best to relate to our families, friends, colleagues, the broader community, power structures, what we feel we owe to others, and what others owe us. We can take a long historical view, and recognize what has been tried before, what has failed and what has succeeded. Many of us have learned patience and acceptance from the school of hard knocks. Most of these lessons come slowly, with time and reflection. We can mentor or support other people on this journey, but in the end we each have to learn these things for ourselves.

On the other hand, a lot of our life experience trained us to live in a very different world. Family structures, technology, the work environment, social values have all changed since we were young. We never had to deal with social media or the gig economy. Events of the last few years have opened our eyes to an awareness of unearned privilege many of us didn’t know we had, and forced us to consider the injustices and inequalities that our society has accepted, either unthinkingly or deliberately. As we build our lives, we often become more and more invested in the values on which they were based. We may feel we can’t afford to critique them and devalue our lives. So we may decide to forgo truth, and just listen to what we want to hear. Look how the world responds to Greta Thunberg and the other young climate activists. They don’t yet have a legacy to defend, so they can see the issues clearly. Their message is simple: listen to the science. But the media and politicians and the fossil fuel industry and other entrenched players will not look beyond their short-term interests, not even for the sake of their children, and so they lie and obfuscate and manipulate numbers and vilify the messengers.

You know what they say: there’s no fool like an old fool. Prove them wrong.

July 29, 2021

Quick stress busters

The lockdown’s easing, most of us have had our second shots, and we’re starting to feel hopeful about the future. But a lot of us are still carrying the burden of over a year of stress and isolation. We’re also feeling the added stress of insecurity. Because we are seniors we tend to have weakened immune systems, so what can we safely do?

If stress and anxiety are becoming a serious problem, of course you should talk to your doctor. But if you think the stress is manageable, here are some stress relievers. These are just quick fixes; they’re not therapy. I won’t mention deep breathing and meditation and exercise and yoga, because you already know about those.

  • Herbal tea, especially lemon balm, green, camomile or peppermint. I found camomile works best for me, but try them all out and see what works best for you.
  • Puzzles, any kind: crosswords, variety puzzles, Sudoku, jigsaws. They focus the mind in a restful but stimulating way. If you don’t have any puzzles lying around, you can find some online here.
  • Fix something: darn a sock, unclog the drain, pull some weeds. It makes you feel in charge again.
  • Read some good news stories. The Toronto Star has a series of them here.
  • Eat dark chocolate. Not too much, not too sweet, or you’ll give yourself new things to worry about.
  • Listen to old radio shows. Take a trip down memory lane, have a laugh. You’ll find some here.
  • Make chicken soup. It’s not hard and you’ll feel good all over. Chop an onion and a couple of stalks of celery and cook them in a bit of water or oil until softened. Add 6 cups of water, ½ cup white wine, 2 bone-in chicken thighs with skin removed, a bay leaf and some thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes. Remove chicken pieces, separate chicken from bone, cut into bite-size pieces and return chicken to saucepan. Discard bones. Add a chopped carrot or two and ½ cup of peas. Simmer for 20 more minutes. Discard bay leaf. Stir in parsley, salt and pepper to taste. If you like, add some noodles in the last 10 minutes.
  • Give yourself a massage. Even just massaging your hands can help. See instructions for different types of massages here.
  • Listen to bedtime stories for grown-ups (no, no, not that kind). You’ll see links to a few here.
  • Take a bath. You don’t need to put bubble bath or anything else in there. The hot water will do the job.

June 29, 2021

Deadbeat cooking

I’m an indifferent cook at best, trying to stay healthy on a few quick, simple dishes. But sometimes I get into a funk and don’t want to bother cooking. For those occasions, I have a few meals I can toss off with a minimum of fuss. These aren’t recipes, this isn’t really cooking. They’re just a few ingredients I can throw together and tell myself I’m still making my own meals, I haven’t stooped to a frozen pizza.

  • Pasta and sardine sauce. Cook some pasta and drain it. Open a can of sardines in tomato sauce. Add them to the pasta. Break up the sardines a bit. Heat through.
  • Pasta and spinach dip. Cook some pasta and drain it. Add spinach dip and heat through.
  • Scrambled egg on toast for one. Put egg in a cup and stir. Mix in some garlic powder, parsley and pepper. Put in the microwave for 20 seconds, stir the mixture, put it back for 20 more seconds; keep doing this until the egg is done. Toast some bread. Spread with tomato paste or ketchup. Spread egg mixture on top.
  • Baked beans on toast. Just what you’d imagine. Toast some bread, heat up some baked beans, spoon them over the toast.
  • Corn on the cob. Dampen a paper towel, wrap it around the corn and put it in the microwave for a couple of minutes.
  • Grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster oven. If you have an adjustable rack, move it down to the lowest position. Leave the baking tray inside, and turn on the oven to 425 degrees F. Get two slices of bread, and spread butter or margarine on one side of each. Put cheese in the middle, against the unbuttered sides. Using oven mitts, take the hot tray out and put the sandwich on it. Put it back in, toast for 4 minutes. Carefully flip with a spatula and put back in for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until the second side is browned and the cheese is melted.
  • Baked potatoes with toppings. Preheat oven or toaster oven to 400 degrees F. Wash, scrub and dry some baking potatoes, eg Russets, or sweet potatoes. Stab them here and there with a fork so they don’t explode. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until a fork goes through easily. Slice them open lengthwise and fluff the pulp with a fork. Toppings ideas: baked beans, grated cheese, plain yogurt and chives, salsa, guacamole, chili, pesto.
  • French toast for one. Slightly stale bread works best. Cut two slices in half. Heat some oil in a frying pan. Mix one egg, a bit of water or milk and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Dip bread pieces one by one in the egg mixture, then brown for a few minutes on each side. It’s traditional to have maple syrup with this but I love it with plain yogurt and some strawberries or blueberries.
  • Tomato and rice soup. Cut up an onion, celery stalk and carrot, and sauté until softened. Add ¼ cup long grain rice and cook for 2 minutes. Add a can of diced tomatoes and 4 cups of water, sprinkle in some dried basil, and cook for 15 minutes or until the rice is ready. Nice with cheese and crackers.
  • Chicken and potatoes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Pour some canola oil into a cup, sprinkle in some garlic powder and paprika, and mix well. Cut some potatoes into chunks. Put in a lasagna pan and toss with some of the seasoned oil. Put some bone-in chicken thighs or legs on top, and spoon more oil over them. Roast for 40 minutes. Add some green vegetable, eg broccoli or green beans, toss with the oil, and put back in the oven for 10 more minutes or until everything is done.

May 30, 2021

Smart phone dumb user

I figured I must be the last senior in Canada without a smartphone. For years, I got by with a simple portable phone that you could use just to make and receive calls, and that was all I needed. My generation doesn’t live our whole life online. But then the network the phone ran on became obsolete, and the phone no longer worked. Meanwhile, the list of things you need a smartphone for keeps growing: Uber rides, emergency alerts, the contact tracing app Covid alert, self-guided walks and museum tours, curbside pickup, probably vaccine passports. So I decided to bite the bullet. I’m not averse to technology in general. I used lots of computer resources in my job, and in retirement I learned to build the Senior Toronto website using Drupal software. But I’m new to smartphone technology and, as I found out, my old knowledge doesn’t transfer over. I’m on my own with this, don’t have any handy grandson to call on. I could tell you that I’m documenting my experience for those of you who have yet to go through it, but that’s not the whole story. The fact is, I’m spitting mad, and I need to vent.

I did my homework, decided on a certified refurbished version of an iPhone that came out a few years ago and still gets good reviews. I’m staying out of stores because of the pandemic, so I checked out the prices on Amazon and Best Buy. Every time I checked, the price went up. I learned that both these sites use dynamic pricing: prices keep fluctuating based on supply and demand. These companies don’t say whether they target individual users that way, jacking up the price once you show an interest in a product, but the prices kept rising steadily. So I stopped checking for a month or so, hoping they would forget about me. When I finally went back in, the prices had dropped down almost to the level I saw when I first started looking. So I jumped through the first hoop and ordered the phone.

Next, I went shopping for a bring-your-own-phone plan to cover talk, text and a bit of data. As you probably know, Canadians pay among the highest prices in the world for cellphone plans. This is because 90% of the market is controlled by only three companies: Bell, Rogers and Telus. But they don’t want us to think we’re being hosed, so they all set up three-tiered markets, offering three levels of service, under different company names, which are sometimes called flanker brands. The three tiers are Bell>Virgin>Lucky, Rogers>Fido>Chatr, and Telus>Koodo>Public. They all operate pretty much in lockstep, offering very similar packages with very similar prices at each tier. When one of them raises its prices, they all raise their prices. Anyway, out of this phony market I picked a bring-your-own-phone plan with a bit of data from Fido, and set it up with preauthorized credit card payments. As part of the setup process, Fido always runs a hard credit inquiry on you. Hard credit inquiries automatically lower your credit score, so my score, which had been excellent, immediately went down seven points. That’s to be expected. But then three days later, when they processed my first automated payment, they ran another hard credit inquiry. This time my credit score went down another nine points. I don’t know how many more times they’ll be doing this, but it’s unconscionable for Fido to be doing it more than once, and degrading their own customers’ credit scores.

The upshot is that I was already feeling a bit bruised and battered by the time the phone and SIM card got delivered. Such an innocuous-looking thing, about the size and weight of a chocolate bar. I stared down at it and had no idea how to turn it on. There wasn’t the tiniest piece of paper in the box, not even a quick-start guide. Even my new frying pan came with a few lines of instruction. The industry claims that by now most people already know how to use smartphones, and that they don’t read manuals. I scouted around on the internet and discovered a hodgepodge of articles and YouTube videos, mostly done by inarticulate computer nerds, and rarely focussing on beginners. So I made myself a list of things I had to learn: how to turn it on, how to turn it off, when to turn it off, how to charge it, when to charge it, how to put in the SIM card, how to run through the setup program, how to place a call, how to receive a call, how to text, how to connect to email, how to use the camera, how to search the internet. Now I’m in the process of reading articles and watching videos for each one of those things in turn, and then trying them out. It’s going to take weeks. It would probably go a bit more smoothly if I could just unclench my teeth.

It turns out that I wasn’t the last senior in Canada without a smartphone. An Environics poll conducted in July 2020 found that 65% of Canadians aged 65 and older own a smartphone. That leaves 35%, or about 2,400,000 seniors, who don’t have one. I guess that group is too small and too unpromising to merit marketing and support. But the writing is on the wall; pretty soon we won’t have much choice. Attention senior centres: please provide lots of patient individual help to your clients in selecting, setting up and using smartphones. If you’re a newbie on your own, it’s a nightmare.

April 29, 2021

Who will look after us?

We all hope that when the time comes, we will die peacefully in our sleep at home, after a full and active life. But as they say, you have to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. What if we become mentally or physically incapacitated and can’t look after ourselves anymore? What if we’re on our own and don’t have family members or others to take care of us?

If nothing else gets you, frailty probably will, so it makes sense to move to a place where you don’t have to deal with stairs, yard work or snow shovelling. It could be an apartment, a condo, or maybe a unit in a retirement home, but try to set it up so that you have the option to stay there and not move into care. So make sure that there is room for a caregiver to stay overnight, or to live in if necessary. Or consider assisted living, which offers some degree of personal care and health care support.

If you become mentally incapable of managing your own affairs, can’t prepare meals, can’t handle your finances, you need to find people to do these things for you. You’ll need two kinds of power of attorney, for personal care and for property. The skills and responsibilities for the two roles are quite different, so you might want to choose two or more people. You have to arrange this while you are still mentally competent.

The person you name as power of attorney for personal care can make decisions about your health care, housing and other aspects of your personal life, such as meals and clothing, if you become mentally incapable of making these decisions. It can’t be someone you already pay for care. You need to find a person you can trust to act in your best interest. They may have to advocate for you in the hospital or care home, so they need to be assertive and articulate. You could also try to form a Share the Care group.

Power of attorney for property involves a wide-ranging set of responsibilities, including managing your finances, paying your bills and preparing your income tax. So here too you need to find someone you can trust to act in your best interest. They also must have financial expertise, because they may need to make important financial decisions on your behalf. They’ll have to know all about your finances and have access to them.

What if you don’t have a friend or family member to fill these roles? You’ll have to hire someone. I wish there were someplace you could hire professionals to act as power of attorney, but no such luck. Start looking now to find someone. They’re called attorneys, but they don’t actually have to be lawyers. You could try looking for recommendations from social workers who run information and referral services in local senior centres, or from advocacy groups for seniors, or maybe through relevant local organizations such as the Alzheimer Society of Ontario. If you have an accountant or lawyer or financial advisor, you could try asking them for recommendations. If your affairs are complicated, you could consider hiring an actual lawyer or paralegal. Whoever you pick, it should not be someone who is a beneficiary of your estate. You don’t want them to have a conflict between spending money to meet your needs while you are alive and maximizing their inheritance. Proceed with caution; you’ll be putting a lot of power into someone’s hands.

If you haven’t appointed powers of attorney, and become mentally incapacitated, the Ontario Office of the Public Guardian will assign someone to manage your affairs. But by then you’re in no position to make your wishes known. So make every effort to appoint people of your own choosing while you are still competent to do so.

Once you’ve made those key decisions, you have to turn them into legal documents. For the power of attorney for personal care and the power of attorney for property, download the forms from the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, have them signed by yourself and two witnesses, file them away and let people know where to find them. You might want to include an Advance Directive, documenting your treatment preferences in the event of serious illness. There are good resources available to help you through this part of the process, for example here and here.

The advice out there is pretty sparse and fragmented, but I’ve pulled together the best that I could find. It’s not definitive by any means. For example, I haven’t addressed the question of how to manage all these needs on a low income, mostly because I couldn’t find any good answers. You need to do your own research on the matters that pertain to you. If you have knowledge or expertise that would help guide us, please add your comments.