Thank you for this invitation to speak to the committee. I'll do my best.
The CCEL is a think tank focused on law and policy issues related to aging. We are part of a B.C. non-profit. A large part of our work involves consulting with seniors about their experiences and then working with expert advisory committees to craft law and policy recommendations to address the problems identified through consultation.
From 2011 to 2017, we worked on our older women's dialogue project. This work was funded over the years by various organizations, including the Government of Canada. We started this project because we noticed that, while gender has a significant impact on life experience, research and policy analysis seemed to be focused on younger women. Feminist work tended to focus on girls and women of child-bearing age, and aging policy tended to be gender-neutral. As a result, older women's experiences became invisible. We developed our project to address this gap in research.
We held a total of 35 consultation events collaborating with local agencies, holding events in 10 different languages, as well as American Sign Language, and speaking with women from their fifties to their nineties. We held five consultation events with indigenous older women. In total, we consulted with over 500 senior women living in the Vancouver area.
Our findings and recommendations are summarized in two reports, which are included in the brief I provided. There are also links in my brief to summary reports available in English and French. I will highlight a few elements of those reports.
I'd like to underscore at the outset that an overarching finding of this project was that the experience of poverty and the vulnerability of senior women are significantly impacted by many aspects of identity—not only gender. Women with disabilities, indigenous women, ethno-cultural minority and immigrant women, and LGBTQ women experience unique challenges as they age. Policy responses thus must be tailored to address the experiences of older women in all their diversity. Generic policies will fail to support the most vulnerable women in Canada, and I can't underscore that enough.
In my presentation, I'd like to talk about poverty, health care, violence and abuse, and access to justice.
Certainly, catastrophic events such as divorce, injury, and job loss can negatively impact income security in old age. However, the poverty of senior women is often a function of events occurring across their lives, particularly the choices women must make to prioritize unpaid family caregiving over paid labour. Currently, policy measures do not adequately address the reality that women often earn a lot less than their male counterparts and so have fewer savings in old age. Recent changes to the guaranteed income supplement unfortunately do not lift the most vulnerable women out of poverty.
For many women, I must also say that “retirement” is a misleading term. Many of us are engaged in caregiving throughout our supposed retirement years. Days are filled with physically and emotionally demanding care for spouses, adult children with disabilities, and grandchildren. This caregiving labour is often a treasured part of women's lives; however, they require financial support to fulfill these critical roles in our communities.
In our report, we have three recommendations related to income security. We recommend that the government enhance the old age security and guaranteed income supplement programs; amend the Canada pension plan to include a dropout provision, parallel to the child rearing provision, that would be applicable to all years of full-time family caregiving; and develop programs providing better financial, housing, and other supports to senior women who are the primary caregivers of underage children, particularly indigenous women. What happens often is that eligibility terminates when you turn 65, but caregiving does not stop.
In terms of supporting senior women survivors of violence and abuse, we learned that violence has a significant impact on aging. Some women do experience violence in old age. Others experienced violence as children or younger women that continues to impact their quality of life. In particular, historic trauma has had an enduring impact on the lives of indigenous older women. Keeping their children and youth safe is a priority.
Through consultation with service providers who work with senior women who have experienced violence, we learned that senior women are particularly reluctant to go to a transition house. Maintaining a connection to their communities is very important to them. Leaving home often means transitioning to long-term care, because transition houses are not set up to address their complex health needs. Also, as they value family relationships, sometimes over their own safety, they will stay in dangerous situations to make sure the people they love are cared for, including spouses who are harming them.
Current policy measures also increase risk for immigrant women experiencing abuse. Pension policy excludes many senior immigrant women from access to old age security and the guaranteed income supplement. Immigrant women stay in dangerous situations because 10-year to 20-year agreements between their sponsoring family members and the Government of Canada prevent them from accessing many publicly funded services, thereby effectively tying them to family members who harm them.
To address these concerns, we have recommended that the Government of Canada and the provincial and territorial governments fund initiatives to enable senior indigenous women, women elders and their communities to develop locally based and culturally appropriate programming to support healing within their communities.
We ask that you enhance support for organizations that assist senior women experiencing or fleeing abuse. This not only means transition houses and safe houses, but also seniors-serving agencies and immigrant-serving agencies, particularly to develop and enhance outreach services so that women can be served without leaving their home.
We would like enhanced funding to safe houses and transition houses, to allow them to implement practices identified in the report “Promising Practices Across Canada for Housing Women Who are Older and Fleeing Abuse”. It is referenced in our brief. This would allow programs and agencies to enhance accessibility and appropriateness for senior women.
Also, we are asking for a review of old age security and guaranteed income supplement eligibility criteria respecting access for senior immigrant women who otherwise have no financial support.
In terms of access to health care, I'm going to skip some of my introduction and just lead into the recommendations.
We've recommended that the government fund patient advocate and navigator programs to provide support and assistance to senior women who experience barriers to receiving timely and appropriate health care. Women with complex health issues find system navigation challenging. Health care is often delivered through a mix of providers.
We recommend enhancing funding for programs aimed at providing housekeeping assistance, such as meal preparation, laundry and housework to senior women requiring support. This is essentially home support. What we've found in recent years is that some of these kinds of services—which are the services women tend to need more than others—have been cut.
We ask that you explore models of health care delivery that better serve women with complex health circumstances, such as community health centres that bring together primary care physicians and allied health professionals. The problem with going to see a physician, as many people know, is that you're often limited to seven minutes with a doctor. If you're an older woman or a woman with disabilities with many complex health issues, seven minutes does not allow you to tell your story and get the right kind of care.
Finally, I have a few words about enhancing access to justice. Senior women tell us that they find it difficult to access legal representation and legal advice. Most cannot afford the legal services they need, and many do not know how to find a lawyer to get help. For some reason, the outreach and promotion of legal services did not seem to reach older women.
Senior women who have survived violence have told us that the legal system can be harmful and re-traumatizing, rather than helpful. Lawyers don't provide the assistance they require; judges may not support them to tell their stories in court, and justice professionals do not seem to help keep them safe. We have worked with a group of older women to develop an eight-minute documentary to illustrate this dynamic. You can watch it on our website. It's called No Voice.
We also have a number of recommendations related to access to justice, as follows.
Provide sustainable funding for programs that provide legal representation to grandmothers who are the primary caregivers of children, including in-house staff lawyer positions within key community agencies. Grandmothers providing care tend to be a group of people that the policy never contemplated would happen.
Identify practical solutions to barriers to access to justice facing older women in B.C. and other provinces, with particular attention to outreach strategies.
Increase the number of hours of funded legal representation in instances where older women require legal aid.
Ensure that justice sector stakeholders, including lawyers, judges and law students, develop a better understanding of the dynamics of trauma.
Enhance funding for advocacy programs that allow senior women to access support that they would not get from a legal aid-funded lawyer. Advocates can provide holistic, emotional and practical assistance that allows women to make better use of their advocates and their legal counsel in a limited time. It provides a better wraparound service for women with complex needs.
Those are the issues that I wanted to highlight in my submission.