Senior Toronto blog

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.

March 29, 2021

Reading in old age

As the pandemic drags on, I find myself spending more and more time reading. Of course, many of us seniors enjoy reading; having time to read is one of the great perks of retirement. But it feels like more than that now; it’s a lifeline. In our prolonged isolation, books have become companions. Some books help us escape and forget about Covid for a little while. Others offer wise voices that help us reflect, solve problems, cope with our situation, validate our feelings. We think of reading as a solitary activity, but actually it can be a great way to maintain contact with other people. We can share our reading interests and experiences in an online book club, or just in casual conversations. In those conversations, we can explore the issues that concern us in our lives, and cement our friendships.

But now that I’m paying more attention to reading, I also find that I’m getting more picky about what I want to read. I’m no longer very interested in stories that focus on the lives and travails of young characters: coming of age, romantic entanglements, climbing to the top, family sagas full of kids and dogs. I don’t have much patience either for thrillers or most best-sellers, often badly crafted books with wooden characters and slipshod style, written using a formula to maximize sales. If it says in the blurb that the heroine is rich and beautiful, I won’t open it. Now that I’m old I find myself reviewing my life, and trying to use my experience to make sense of the world around me. So I want to read about individuals who grow and learn, outsiders who still find their way, elderly writers documenting their experience in their own voices, speculative or other fiction that explores forms of society that work for ordinary people, books that tear down prevailing myths. I guess I’m looking for truth now, both historical and emotional, and I want books that will open my eyes to it. I want to surround myself with sane, rational, grown-up voices that are looking for truth too.

At least, that’s what I like reading right now. Maybe next month I’ll turn to horror novels or westerns, who knows? But whatever I need, there will always be exactly the right kind of books out there, waiting to be found; companions to share my journey. That’s the beauty of reading.

February 28, 2021

Bernie's mittens

There he sits, buttressed against the cold, wrapped up in a warm parka and mittens on Inauguration Day. The cameras are rolling, beaming this historic event around the world. Most of the participants, mindful of the cameras and the occasion, are decked out in designer outfits, coats with matching gloves and masks, carefully coiffed hair that doesn’t budge in the breeze. But this is an outdoor ceremony in the middle of January. So Bernie Sanders put on what he probably wears to pick up milk at the corner store in the dead of winter, and off he went. In case you’re one of the few people on the planet who haven’t seen the picture, you can view it here.

Of course, the media had a field day, photoshopping Bernie into the Starship Enterprise, the 1945 Yalta Conference, the Sistine Chapel, everywhere. The Vermont schoolteacher who made the mittens had her fifteen minutes of fame. Bernie himself good-naturedly joined in the fun, and then announced that proceeds from the burgeoning merchandise would go to charity. But if you’re a senior, I’ll bet you didn’t laugh. You probably took a peek at that picture and saluted it with a nod of recognition. You might have said to yourself, Well, sure, if you have to sit through an outdoor ceremony in January, you have to bundle up those old bones. Bernie dressed the way a lot of us seniors dress in winter. He looked like us.

You really can’t mess with Bernie Sanders. A self-described democratic socialist, and the longest-running independent in US congressional history, he has advocated for progressive causes since his school days. He supports single-payer health care, paid parental leave, reduced military spending, gay rights, women’s rights, labour rights, free college education and aggressive action to fight climate change. As a Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential campaign, this 78-year-old inspired a youth-led movement for sweeping social change, and almost single-handedly moved the Democratic Party to the left. He can wear whatever he wants, for heaven’s sake. So the media had their fun over his mittens, but the tone was light.

What does it take to be a role model for seniors? It’s not the age-defiers, the daredevils, the curmudgeons, or the plastic surgery junkies. I think it’s the people who wear their age with acceptance and dignity, who have grown beyond seeking approval from others, who have gained wisdom with their years and found ways to apply it where it can be useful. It’s people who are still engaged in the world and respond to the issues of the day with commitment and compassion. People like Bernie Sanders.

January 29, 2021

Grasping at straws

The pandemic grinds on, carving a path of destruction through our healthcare system, the economy, and the quality of our lives. It’s a crisis, and I’m not trying to play it down. I just feel like I need a little break from all the gloom right now. You too? The pandemic hasn’t been good for much, but here are a few small things:

  • We finally learned how to wash our hands properly
  • We’ve been saving money. We just buy what we absolutely need and get it over with
  • We get to snoop into other people’s rooms and meet their kids and pets on Zoom
  • We can finally read, or reread, all those books that have been sitting on our shelves for years
  • We don’t have to worry about how our hair looks in the back. We can just run a comb around the front and we’re good to go on Zoom
  • We introverts are loving it; social pressure is way down
  • We don’t have to cook and clean for company. What’s a little dust?
  • We finally find out which deadbeat doesn’t pick up what his dog leaves on our lawn
  • We get to know our neighbours, some of the few humans we see in person. In spring, summer and fall, we can complain about the weather over the back fence or across the driveway. In winter, we can complain about the weather while we’re shovelling
  • We can procrastinate to our heart’s content. Might as well put off that nasty chore; it’ll give us something to do tomorrow

December 29, 2020

Post-pandemic life for seniors

The vaccinations have started, thank goodness. We just have to wait our turn now: the end is in sight. Or is it? What will life be like for us seniors when the pandemic is finally over?

In some respects it will be better. In just a few short months, technology has come to the rescue: virtual lifelong learning, entertainment, fitness, medical appointments, shopping, visits with friends and family. It’s sure to continue after the pandemic: we need it, we love it, it makes perfect sense. Even if we have health or frailty issues that keep us close to home, now we can survive and even thrive at home as never before.

But suppose we have a stroke or break a hip and can’t look after ourselves anymore. Would we risk going into long term care? We were all horrified by what the first wave of the pandemic revealed: a nightmare of incompetence, inadequacy, abuse and neglect. Politicians claimed to be horrified too, and vowed to take action. So, knowing that the second wave was coming, what did the Government of Ontario do? Over the summer, while the healthcare community kept urging action to prepare for the second wave, Ontario did precisely nothing. Instead, in the fall Ontario passed the Supporting Ontario’s Recovery Act, which provides liability protection to workers and businesses in a number of sectors which make “an honest effort” to follow public health guidelines and laws. In effect, it will now be significantly harder for residents and families to hold long term care homes liable for any harm caused by exposure to Covid-19. In October 2020, an independent commission investigating Covid-19 in Ontario long term care homes began releasing interim recommendations, calling for immediate changes to better deal with the second wave of the pandemic. The Ford government has focused mainly on only one of them, the recommendation that every resident receive a minimum of four hours of direct care per day. First, they watered it down from a “minimum” to an “average” of four hours per day. Then they decided to roll the plan out slowly, in piecemeal fashion, over four years. The Ontario plan offers only 15 additional minutes of care before the next election. The remaining care will take another three years. As for regular unscheduled nursing home inspections, which the Ontario government cancelled before the pandemic and which the commission report recommended reinstating, Ontario makes no mention of them at all.

How can they get away with this? You know the answer, you know it in your bones. Premier Ford has ageism on his side. Our society views seniors as a burden, and wants our care to be cheap. Politicians will not gain many votes by spending a lot of money on senior care, not even after all the revelations of abuse and neglect. Ageism is more blatant now, and more cruel. It will be affecting our lives as seniors more than ever in the post-pandemic world.

November 30, 2020

Ronni Bennett

There’s such a disconnect between our own experience of aging and the way it’s portrayed in literature and media. Most of what we read about aging is written by younger people, and it’s all about disease and decline. So back in 2003 Ronni Bennett, a retired radio and television producer, decided to launch a blog where she could explore what it’s really like to get old. For seventeen years, her Time Goes By blog was the place to go for articulate, honest, insightful discussion of the experiences and issues we face as we age. With grace, humour, compassion and uncommon candor, she covered it all: ageism, health, politics, culture, caregiving, relationships. When she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and COPD, she took us with her on her journey, working through all her challenges and dilemmas with a clear eye and no self-pity. Ronni Bennett was a role model of integrity and intellectual honesty. When she passed away on October 30, 2020, she left behind a huge community of bereft readers. There’s a gaping hole in our lives now where Ronni Bennett’s blog used to be.

We’re accustomed to hearing other people speak for seniors, for better or worse: healthcare professionals, gerontologists, caregivers, journalists, adult children. It’s only recently that we seniors have begun speaking for ourselves. Blogs can be an ideal vehicle for this: an accessible, easy-to-use tool that lets us voice our opinions, combat ageism, share experiences and build community. But so far, seniors are not making good use of blogs. The internet is awash in blogs, but fewer than 1% of all bloggers are aged 65 and over. As for the elderblogs that are out there, what are they like? Well, a slew of them dish out tips on fashion, travel, anti-aging products, reverse mortgages, investment advice and the like, the same old stuff over and over. Many of these blogs are set up to generate revenue and treat seniors as consumers. Then there’s another large group that are like diaries: people sharing their day-to-day lives, with plenty of detail about family events, aches and pains, gardening, traveling, political views, dealing with the pandemic. Lots of pictures of grandchildren and pets. These can be pleasant and entertaining, sort of like chatting with a neighbour. But mostly we discover that other people’s lives are just as boring as our own.

It’s so important to hear strong senior voices speaking for ourselves about the issues affecting us, with insight, wisdom and compassion. Where are those voices?