Thank you, Mr. Chair, and members, for this opportunity to speak.
I have held a variety of roles in health care for over 35 years, and much of my work has revolved around seniors. Currently I am the executive director responsible for residential care and assisted living for the Fraser health region, which encompasses a population of 1.8 million.
My comments today arise from my observations and experience over the past few decades.
I've learned that defining a senior is like trying to define a sunset: no two are truly alike. There are some general categories, of course, ranging from the vibrant, active senior to the physically and cognitively frail senior, but age is not the defining characteristic of a senior.
Poverty is also about a lot more than income. It's about attitude and beliefs, life skills, personal resilience, and personal support systems. I find in my work that there are so many myths about seniors: that aging is depressing so just expect to be depressed when you get old; that dementia is the inevitable if you live long enough; that when you're old it's too late to start exercising; and that everyone goes into a care home when they get old.
The truth is that seniors tend to have better mental health than those who are younger. They're more accepting of life and they appreciate what they have. Research is showing that social connections are as relevant as genetic makeup and lifestyle to the health and longevity of adults.
Using B.C. statistics, only one out of 20 persons who are between the ages of 65 and 84 have dementia. One out of four who are 85 and older have dementia. That means that three out of four seniors who are over 85 do not have dementia. Furthermore, in B.C., about eight out of 10 seniors live on their own in a community, with the other two out of 10 being in a care home.
We know from experience that people can continue to live in their own homes in familiar surroundings even if they have mild dementia, and some can with moderate dementia if they have the supports. As a former physical therapist, I can tell you that the science shows that everyone can benefit from exercise, no matter what age they are when they start.
The decline caused by biological aging can be mitigated with planning and the use of simple approaches to life. We don't know yet what innovations will change the experience of aging, but there is enough to suggest that there are going to be significant opportunities afforded by emerging technology. We need to search out those technologies, facilitate innovation, and make it affordable and accessible so it can spread to all seniors, regardless of income, location, or technological literacy.
At the same time, adults need to take personal responsibility to plan and invest for their future and prepare themselves for making the decisions that will support them to age well in their own home.
There are some things that we need to think about. For seniors who are hoping to age with some grace, housing is critical. It's one of our basic needs, and they need to wrap their head around the fact that if the family home has the bedroom on the second floor, they may need to sell it and buy that one-floor condo while they're still young enough to make friends and adjust to the change. If they're building a home, they need to think about putting the master bedroom and an accessible bathroom on the main floor, and maybe include a suite for a live-in helper, and if there are stairs, they need to make sure that they're built so they can add a chair lift, and always wire the home for technology.
In terms of managing the home and life, you can make life easier with automatic deposit of income and automatic payment of bills. Make sure you purchase appliances with an automatic shut-off, whether it's the iron, the kettle, or the stove. Purchase a fridge that beeps when the doors aren't quite shut. Have remote controls to turn lights on and off. Simplify the surroundings. Declutter the rooms of furniture and knick-knacks, and declutter the cupboards and the papers in order to make it easier to keep clean and not be overwhelmed as energy wanes.
These are simple things. They make a difference.
When we look at new buildings, whether it's condos, townhomes, or houses, we should be requiring that the wiring allow smart homes to happen. Today we already have that technology, whether you call it granny cams, or whatever. You can have smartphone apps that allow adult children to live far away from their mom and dad and able to observe things like the blister pack of medications, and whether the doses were taken that day, or to take a look at who is coming in and out of the front door. There can be sensors in the bed or chairs, so that you can see the patterns, and the app alerts you if there's a change to the normal pattern. You can have GPS trackers for those who wander. The technology already exists, and it's probably only the start.
In terms of supporting the care side, I think there are two categories to look at. One is the informal or unpaid caregivers. We need to strengthen policies and incentives like compassionate care benefits and income tax deductions for adults with a disability who are dependants. We know that families are willing to care, but they do need workplaces that support them to do so. Employers are willing to support employees to care, but not at a cost to their bottom line.
Supporting the informal caregiver has an economic benefit to the country, but more importantly, it's a societal good. Paid caregivers are also critical to supporting individuals with their functional dependencies. They provide important personal care, yet there are gross inequities in pay and hours.
My recommendations are threefold; to foster innovation through grants and policy regarding affordable home adaptations and/or technology to compensate for loss of physical and/or cognitive function; to foster grants and policy relating to housing that's affordable and design-built to be accessible, and promoting of social connecting; and to address pay and work environment inequities for personal care workers, and strengthen policies and incentives for informal caregivers.