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Canada struggling to prepare for aging boomers, smaller workforce

Peggy Curran, Postmedia News

Published: Wednesday, August 17, 2011
MONTREAL - Blow out your candles and make a wish.
It's 2051, and you've just celebrated your 103rd birthday. Did you mark the occasion by getting your black belt in judo? Host a retrospective of the brilliant art career you launched when you retired from your real job 40 years ago? Or are you too crippled up with arthritis, confused in the head, or just plain poor to enjoy the moment?
Canada still has no plan to cope with the implications for our public services and our economy of a swelling demographic wave of seniors.

Canada still has no plan to cope with the implications for our public services and our economy of a swelling demographic wave of seniors.

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Many years ago, back when we still thought aging was something funny that would never happen to us, my cousin Sandra made up a morbid little birthday song. "You're old, and you're going to get older, and one day when you get old enough, then you will die."
So what's old enough these days? And how is Canada preparing for a society where more of us will live much longer, while fewer people will be in the workforce paying the bills?
On Wednesday, the Jewish Eldercare Centre in Montreal hosted a birthday party for 22 residents who are 100 or older. Together, they have celebrated 2,241 birthdays. The oldest among them, Bella (Huss) Zomberg, is 109. She was born the year the Boer War ended, Edward VII became King of England, and Teddy Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to ride in a motor car.
Back in 1902, life expectancy for women was 47. Eight per cent of North American homes had a telephone, 14 per cent had a bathtub and most people died young, from diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria and the flu.
These days, life expectancy in most Western democracies hovers around 80. With the oldest baby boomers turning 65 this year, it's predicted that over the next 20 years the number of seniors in Canada will outnumber those under age 20.
"A major demographic transition is under way that will strain government finances," warns a fiscal sustainability report prepared for the federal government last year. As the oldest baby boomers reach their traditional retirement age of 65, it cautions, "spending pressures in areas such as health care and elderly benefits are projected to intensify."
Over the next eight years, there will be a rapid bump in the number of people 65 and over. Throw in a higher life expectancy and a lower fertility rate, and the gap between old and young, between the workforce and a retired population that is older and frailer will continue accelerating and widening until 2029, when it will continue to dip, but at a slower pace.
Barring major shifts in immigration policy and a return to the big families of yore, by 2070, it's expected there will be one senior citizen in Canada for every two people aged 15 to 64, the typical breadbasket of the full-time labour force. That's down from just under eight to one back in 1971, right around the time that first wave of boomers graduated from university.
The crunch could happen even sooner. A report published by Statistics Canada Wednesday says that within 10 years, as many as one in four Canadian workers will be 55 or over. If they are tempted by the Freedom 55 dream of beaches and going to the park with their grandkids - or victims of a mid-life buyout/layoff program - that's a lot of lost manpower and tax revenue.
Fewer people in the workforce means the economy will grow at a slower rate. It will also place a heavier burden on pensions, health care and other social programs.
No wonder policy planners and politicians are working - sometimes at cross purposes - on scenarios exploring the costs of an aging population, and who should foot the bills.
"Ninety per cent of seniors live on their own and are able to take care of themselves," says Diane Schweitzer, director of quality and operations at the Jewish Eldercare Centre.
But the longer we live, she noted, the more likely it is we will eventually come to rely on health and social services. "After age 85, the number of people with cognitive or physical impairments increases."
Jewish Eldercare is home to 320 people, mostly elderly, who require the heaviest level of assistance. Schweitzer said the average age of residents is 87 - and climbing. "A year or two ago, we had 13 residents who were over 100. Now we have more than 20."
The public, long-term care facility hosts more than 80 activities every month to keep residents busy. "We treat people like you would want your mother or father to be treated, or how you would want to be treated, with respect and dignity in a homelike environment."
But Schweitzer said people who care for the elderly are already scrambling to make do with constraints in health and post-secondary education funding compounding shortages in critical fields, such as nursing and occupational therapy.
Jewish Eldercare recently struck a deal with John Abbott College to help foreign-trained nurses qualify for certification in Quebec - the program's first graduates will soon take up jobs at the centre.
"The government keeps cutting back, but there is an ever greater demand," said Schweitzer. "So you have to come up with innovative ways to provide the services that are needed."

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