By Shannon Proudfoot, Postmedia News
Canada's seniors are living longer and are vastly less likely to struggle with poverty than they were three decades ago, but there's work to be done in areas such as diagnosing and treating mental illness, reducing social isolation and combating the "mythology" of aging, Canada's chief public health officer said.
David Butler-Jones devoted his third annual report on the state of public health in this country to an in-depth examination of the well-being of the 65-plus population, noting that by 2050, more than one-quarter of Canada's population is expected to join those ranks.
"People, by and large, are actually aging well. Aging is a vibrant time, and while sometimes there are some infirmities along the way, people live life well, are engaged in their communities and contributing to society," he said in an interview, noting that the adage that "50 is the new 40" reflects reality.
"It's never been better. It could be even better still, with a few small things."
The proportion of the Canadian population 65 and older rose to 14 per cent in 2008 from nine per cent in 1978, Butler-Jones points out in the report — a trend that mirrors other developed countries. Life expectancy continues to rise, sitting at 78 years for men and 83 years on average for women, and along with enjoying longer lives, there's evidence of rising quality of life.
Survey results show that nearly all seniors in Canada (97 per cent) are satisfied with their lives in general and 70 per cent say they have very good or excellent mental health. In the last three decades, the proportion of people aged 65 and older living on low incomes declined steeply, to six per cent in 2008 from 29 per cent in 1978 — a shift Butler-Jones attributes to social programs and widely available public pensions.
Still, aboriginal seniors in Canada fare more poorly both in terms of life expectancy and poverty. Thirteen per cent of aboriginal seniors were living on low incomes in 2001, and life expectancy at birth was 71 years for aboriginal men and 77 for aboriginal women in the same year.
Statistics Canada data show that 70 per cent of seniors feel a strong or somewhat strong connection to their communities — second only to teenagers. And while the exact relationship between the two isn't clear, social connections and good health appear to go hand in hand.
Improving the health and quality of life of seniors doesn't necessarily call for expensive or complex solutions, Butler-Jones said.
Opening shopping malls for walking groups in extremely hot or cold weather gets people active and socializing, he said, and awareness programs focused on simple issues such as reducing clutter at home or ensuring people aren't drowsy from medication can reduce the risk of potentially dangerous falls.
"As seniors make up a larger percentage of the population and of the workforce, for that matter, we need to understand those issues, anticipate them as much as we can and do the kinds of things that will make a difference," he said.
An estimated 20 per cent of seniors living on their own and 80 to 90 per cent of those living in institutions have mental health issues or illness. At the same time, dementia affects about 400,000 Canadian seniors, the report says, and that number is expected to double in the next 30 years.
As of last year, 89 per cent of seniors were living with at least one chronic health condition such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, cancer or Alzheimer's disease. One in four of those aged 65 to 79 and one in three of those 80-plus had at least four chronic conditions.
Abuse and neglect of seniors is "often a hidden, under-reported issue," Butler-Jones writes, and there's a particular dearth of reliable information about how it affects those living in institutions or facilities. Available research suggests that four to 10 per cent of Canadian seniors experience physical, psychological or financial abuse or neglect, and women, the very frail or those with cognitive impairments are particularly at risk.
The report also highlights that seniors are both givers and receivers of care. Twenty-nine per cent of those aged 75 or older report getting help from family and friends with tasks such as transportation or running errands, while 47 per cent provided care to an immediate family member, 38 per cent to a friend or neighbour and 13 per cent to other relatives.
"Aging is a positive thing, given the alternative," said Butler-Jones.
Highlights from the 2010 Report on the State of Public Health in Canada, focused on aging and seniors:
- Canadian women who turned 65 in 2008 could expect to live an additional 21 years on average, and men an average of 18 years — up from about 19 and 15 years, respectively, in 1980
- Canadian women have historically had longer life expectancies than men and that's still the case, but the gap narrowed from five years to three between 1980 and 2006
- 44 per cent of seniors describe their health as excellent or very good
- 37 per cent said they'd taken steps to improve their health, including increasing physical activity (71 per cent), losing weight (21 per cent) or changing eating habits (13 per cent)
- There are more seniors in the paid workforce, with 11 per cent working in 2009, compared to seven per cent in 1990
- 28 per cent of seniors live alone and 36 per cent engage in volunteering
- Most seniors (80 per cent) live in urban areas, a similar proportion to other age groups, and 92 per cent live in private homes as opposed to long-term care facilities, retirement and assisted-living facilities
- More than three-quarters of seniors living in private households say they took at least one prescription or over-the-counter medication in the previous two days, and 13 per cent had used five or more. Those proportions rise to 97 and 53 per cent, respectively, among seniors living in institutions such as retirement or nursing homes