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As costs spiral, low-income seniors are doing without, says UVic prof

Pensions and government supports and services are flat-lining as the cost of living increases, putting fixed-income seniors in a difficult position.

B.C. must urgently consider the health and economic implications of an aging population living on minimum wage and unable to pay for housing or medical aids, says a University of Victoria researcher.

“It’s totally shocking,” Susan McDaniel said of a recent report by B.C.’s seniors watchdog that found about one in four seniors live on less than $21,000 a year — increasingly unable to pay rising rents, afford dental work or eyeglasses, maintain their homes or pay their bills. The median income for B.C. seniors in 2019 was $30,750.

“If you look underneath the covers of it, low-income older adults in B.C. are getting crunched” between stagnating pensions and supports and increasing costs, said McDaniel, an adjunct sociology professor and research affiliate for the Institute on Aging and Lifelong Health at UVic. “That’s what it amounts to.”

The report, B.C. Seniors: Falling Further Behind released by seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie, finds costs are soaring for seniors on fixed incomes while pensions and government supports and services are flat-lining.

Mackenzie, in a phone interview this past week, said she was surprised by statistics showing B.C. ranks behind most of the country in the supports and services.

“It was a shock to me,” she said. “I didn’t know we were the worst.”

The report, which makes 10 recommendations, received national media attention but did not yield an immediate to-do list from the government. Mackenzie believes that will come.

“I think the magnitude of some of these issues, as demonstrated in the response to the report, is going to resonate with the decision-makers who may have underestimated the challenges out there, particularly for seniors who rent and particularly for seniors who need home support services and and other extended health benefits,” she said.

In B.C., most seniors 65 and older received Old Age Security, which maxes out at $8,000 annually, as well as Canada Pension Plan benefits with a maximum of about $15,000 annually. About one in four in B.C. received the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which maxes out at $11,952 a year for low-income seniors earning less than $20,208 a year. The three combined typically amount to $22,649 annually.

B.C. tops up the pensions of the lowest-income seniors by $99 a month — but fewer than 10 per cent receive that, and the amount the fourth lowest amount in the country. The supplements in other provinces and territories range from $33.33 a month in New Brunswick to $300 in Nunavut; Nova Scotia and Quebec do not offer a top-up.

The report goes on to show B.C. neither subsidizes dental care (six other provinces do) nor hearing aids and mobility devices (seven others do).

“What low-income seniors are doing … is doing without,” McDaniel said. “What are they going to do? No. 1, they’re going to end up more ill.”

Long-standing evidence shows seniors who can’t hear have fewer interactions with people and become more isolated, affecting their mental health, she said, while “bad teeth lead to the increasing likelihood of the onset of dementia.”

The Falling Further Behind report recommends giving extended health benefits to seniors needing eyeglasses, hearing aids and mobility aids, for example, as well as working with the federal government to ensure dental coverage for seniors.

It also recommends development of a program to help low- and modest-income seniors with home repairs.

Typically, seniors are injured trying to reach things, clean or make repairs “they shouldn’t be doing,” McDaniel said.

Lisa Montroy, 75, with a condo on the Songhees, says she’s fortunate to own her own place but finds she increasingly needs help for maintenance and repairs.

Montroy said people tend to think if a senior owns their own home and they are relatively healthy “she is fine, she can manage.” But she imagines in the future she will need more help and she doesn’t want to be a burden on family.

If seniors are injured and up in hospital, they typically deteriorate and cost the health care system more, said McDaniel, noting more damage is done to older adults by falls than almost anything else.

“So what we’re doing here, and it really is absolutely stupid, frankly, shocking, is that we’re being penny wise and pound foolish, because low-income seniors are going to increasingly end up losing their homes or not being able to keep them up and going into long-term care,” McDaniel said.

“If you can keep them in their homes, it’s cheaper, it’s better for them, it’s better for their health, better all over for the society and costs less.”

The provincial government provides rent subsidies for seniors with incomes of less than $25,000 through the Shelter Aid for Elderly Residents (SAFER) program. But the grants are capped at $765 in Victoria — about half the cost of an average one-bedroom unit.

Mackenzie said that B.C. Housing has stated that they are working on the program.

“My hope is that it will be a significant, if not complete overhaul of the rent subsidy program as it exists today to address the goal of 30 per cent of income on rent which it is clearly falling short of,” she said.

Esquimalt resident Steven Graham, 62, said his CPP and veteran’s pension keep him afloat with a part-time job as a security guard. His rent is increasing by $20 to $1,000 a month in January, but “if my apartment goes up any more, to $1,500 or $1,800, and if I don’t find other income, I’m out on the street.”

McDaniel, who has advised on policy around the world, said subsidized housing for low-income seniors must be one of the government’s priorities.

“They’ve contributed so much to society throughout their lives and they shouldn’t be treated with abandon at this late stage in life,” she said. “It’s worrying to me to think of a senior just getting by on this [$20,000] or $30,000,” she said.

The average wait time for subsidized housing operated by non-profit societies or B.C. Housing is three years, with about one in five waiting five years, according to the seniors advocate’s report.

Since 2017, $2 billion has been invested into improving seniors care, according to the Health Ministry, including doubling the seniors supplement, which hadn’t gone up since 1987. Funding has also gone to expanded respite and adult day programs and to address staffing shortages in long-term care and assisted living.

“Despite the historic investments the government has made in senior care, this report shows there is more that needs to be done to make life more affordable for seniors,” the ministry said in a statement.

B.C. Liberal Health Critic Shirley Bond said the seniors advocate has created a road map for improvement and that services and supports for seniors “should be a very high priority” as part of the province’s projected surplus — especially in terms of helping seniors stay in their own homes “where the majority of seniors want to spend the latter years of their lives.”

McDaniel says seniors get short shrift in part because seniors themselves tend not to advocate for themselves. Numerous studies find low-income seniors will say they are doing fine, but an examination of their kitchen will show fridge and cupboards near empty.

“That’s particularly true of women,” she said, adding: “But it’s also, frankly, ageism, the notion that they’re not there, they’re invisible.”