A voice for the aging
We're sitting chatting in her comfortable office when MP Jean Crowder springs a surprise.
"I'll be 60 this year," she smiles.
This irony is not lost on either of us as Crowder begins to talk about the challenges seniors are facing in the Cowichan Valley; the roadblocks to finding solutions to those challenges; how Crowder is helping through local forums and Parliament; and what we can do to help in our communities.
"The issues facing seniors have grown because the cost of everything has gone up, but pensions haven't kept up," she says.
In the Cowichan Valley, the most pressing issues are seniors' incomes and housing, she explains.
In Cowichan, the move from the well paid forestry industry means lower wage jobs for many people. People can't save at the same rate, so more and more seniors have to work part-time.
"Seniors haven't been able to save; only one-third of people put money into RRSPs; only about one-third have private sector pensions," Crowder adds.
And income obviously has an impact on the second issue — housing.
"For younger seniors who have houses as assets, they can run into trouble paying property taxes, upkeep and maintenance," Crowder says.
For older seniors, age-appropriate care — like home support and suitable residential care - is the issue.
Crowder says the challenge with the supply of age-appropriate housing is that housing is multi-jurisdictional.
"The feds give money to the provinces, but there's no accountability back to the feds; the BC Housing Authority sets priorities, but seniors are not one of them; the municipalities are responsible for property taxes and zoning," she expands.
Crowder describes a developer who was in her office recently.
"He wanted to construct an age-appropriate building right here in the valley, then found out he couldn't do it because of the rules."
"There is no overall strategy. We need one."
Affordability of long-term age-appropriate care is another issue in the mix, she says.
She describes health care challenges for seniors: drug affordability and accessibility; and people trapped in acute care who shouldn't be there because they need less care. But there's no where else for them to go.
"We also hear that while the universities are training plenty of people in pediatrics, there's a shortage of health workers for the geriatric age group," she says.
Although transportation is a provincial concern, it has its effect here. Crowder describes a lady who had to travel to Victoria for her driving test, and couldn't find a way to get there.
"A volunteer driving program is great, but it mustn't take away the requirement for an effective local transportation system that meets the needs of seniors," she says.
"What we discovered from recent work and seniors' forums is that not all sidewalks in Lake Cowichan are wheelchair accessible; we should have automatic doors on buses; and stop lights aren't long enough because seniors need more time to cross the road," she said.
"These are simple things, but important. Every community needs an age-friendly check list."
Elder abuse - physical, emotional, financial - is a real problem, she says.
"There is insufficient protection for people, especially when a person can't speak for themselves."
In some banks, she says, if a person comes in who the bank personnel recognize as vulnerable and is with someone wanting them to sign over or cosign for money, it raises a red flag, and the bank insists on independent counsel.
She speaks of a recent event when a senior was discharged from hospital in slippers with no money to get home.
So, is there a solution? And if there is, how can it be reached?
"We must first raise the level of awareness in communities - involve organizations, caregivers, businesses, governments," Crowder says.
Twenty-five people turned out for a recent seniors' forum in Lake Cowichan she hosted. She has held a forum in Chemainus and others will follow in Shawnigan on March 10 and in Duncan on March 20.
"I really believe that each local community has to put together a working group to develop strategies," she says, handing me Metchosin's Age-Friendly Community Report that came before Metchosin council late last year.
The report contains several ideas that could be implemented here, Crowder says. "It's got lots of options and is a good example of what to do locally, a good starting point."
Lake Cowichan people are now pulling together in a group, she says.
"If I can bring people together, that's a great start."
As well, Crowder is feeding the information she gets at the forums to Opposition seniors critic Irene Mathyssen in Ottawa.
"We want to develop a national strategy - it will be released in about two months," she said.
Crowder has also introduced a Bill in Ottawa that would enact a National Poverty Strategy, which she says would have positive effects for seniors as well.
Locally, people can contact Social Planning Cowichan encouraging them to put together a strategy or contact their municipalities. Another good contact is the Seniors Resource and Support Society Cowichan.
Crowder leans forward to emphasize her next comments:
"It's shocking that we are now past the first wave of baby boomers, so the reality that seniors' issues are worsening should not be a surprise. We just haven't done anything about it," she says.
"The federal government must take leadership on this so the communities can do the work that's needed," she emphasizes.
She says it's also important to note that seniors are far more active and engaged than they used to be.
Her mother, 81-year-old Bobbie McCormack, is a good example, she laughs.
"Among other pursuits, she knits for the local Red Cross, plays darts and and three days a week does reading math with kids in school," Crowder smiles.
Help is out there:
Cowichan has many resources for seniors to turn to when they need questions answered or help with an issue. Organizations offer help ranging from where to place your pet if you're hospitalized to visiting or transporting isolated seniors.
These include non-profit societies:
Cowichan Seniors Community Foundation's mission is to identify emerging issues affecting seniors through dialogue with businesses, non-profits and Valley residents. They offer a door-to-door volunteer driving program for seniors.
Seniors Resource and Support Society offers financial assistance, social clubs, prevention of elder abuse, widow/ers support group, senior peer counselling, subsidized housing, legal resources, grocery delivery by phone.
Cowichan Family Caregivers Support Society supporting family caregivers.
Cowichan Intercultural Society offers help to seniors in a new country.
Cowichan Valley Hospice Society offers support and resources for those who have a terminal illness and their families.
St. John Ambulance provides first aid and CPR training, sells first aid kits. Volunteers provide a therapy dog program.
Volunteer Cowichan help lonely and isolated seniors with a Friendly Visitors program.
You can find a complete list of seniors resources on the website of Cowichan Seniors Community Foundation.