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A national seniors strategy means better health-care for all Canadians

Special to The Globe and Mail -- Published Saturday, May 06, 2017 -- Dr. Granger Avery, President of the Canadian Medical Association

Mr. Spock of Star Trek had it right with “live long and prosper.” It is a concise, yet apt encapsulation of the goals of humankind. Helping create the conditions whereby Canadians have the ability to live successful, healthy and long lives must be one of the most important jobs of policy makers. Judging by a new census showing our country now has more seniors than children, we have indeed created conditions for seniors to live a longer life. While this is welcome news for all Canadians, it does create added challenges that are best addressed by the creation of a national seniors strategy.

A closer look at the Statistics Canada report reveals that the number of seniors has jumped by 20 per cent since 2011 as the leading edge of the baby boom generation started turning 65. Further, the number of Canadians over the age of 85 has increased 19 per cent and those over age 100 increased 41 per cent. By 2031, it is expected that close to one-quarter (23 per cent) of Canada’s population will be over age 65. This means the proportion of seniors in Canada could eventually equal the level now seen in Japan. To add context to the demographics, Finance Canada has warned that our aging population will increase pressure on public finances due to higher health and social costs.

People do not inherently have greater needs for health and social services just because they are older. However, it is a fact that older adults are more likely to have complex, chronic conditions that place greater demands on health-care and social services as the population ages. Consider:

• People who are aged 85 or older and have no chronic diseases use half as many health services as people aged 65-74 who have three or more chronic diseases (e.g. diabetes, hypertension and heart disease).

• The 24 per cent of seniors who have at least three chronic diseases account for 40 per cent of all health-care use among seniors.

These numbers show where, with strategic action, we can step up as a country and provide the supports seniors need to enjoy better lives, longer. Several provincial governments have targeted investment and focus on improving seniors care. Those actions must be matched and supported by a national seniors strategy now. We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to build a cohesive strategy that supports seniors, drives economic results and benefits all Canadians. Let’s avoid a patchwork approach that leaves seniors in a vulnerable position and the country worse off.

We are encouraged by Liberal MP Marc Serré’s motion on the development of a national seniors strategy, and by Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu’s private member’s bill calling for a new national framework to improve access to palliative care. We also note that the NDP recognized the importance of action when it pledged to implement a national strategy on aging during the last general election. These are all important ideas that deserve the support of all parliamentarians.

A national strategy on seniors care is needed to help seniors get better access to efficient high-quality care, which will in turn help ensure Canadians of all ages gain improved access to care. How? When seniors’ care is delivered effectively, our health resources are used more efficiently, providing care where and when it is needed. It makes sense, and it’s good economics. The middle class – a stated priority for the current government – would also benefit as many in that group face the challenge of not only supporting their aging family members, but also providing for their children.

Improving the efficiency, availability and quality of health-care for our seniors means our system must evolve. This evolution in health-care requires a strategic approach targeting key areas, specifically:

• Developing a co-ordinated home plan so seniors can get the support they need to stay in their homes longer;

• Creating a national strategy for palliative and end-of-life care;

• Boosting key infrastructure investments to improve and provide more residential care options for seniors;

• Enhancing financial support for family caregivers by making tax credits refundable.

The CMA, backed by our 50,000 Demand a Plan supporters, will continue to press the federal government to develop a national seniors strategy, and we encourage all parliamentarians to do so as well because every Canadian deserves support and care through all stages of life.