Good morning, and thank you for the invitation.
My name is Amanda Grenier. I am a professor in health, aging and society, as well as the Gilbrea Chair in aging and mental health, and the director of the Gilbrea Centre at McMaster University.
I am here today to draw your attention to the importance of understanding and addressing vulnerability and poverty from a life course perspective.
My testimony is based on insight from research projects I have led, which were funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. These include research on older women's experiences of frailty, late-life transitions, homelessness among older people and, more recently, precarious aging. It also draws on research collected as part of an Employment and Social Development Canada project on social isolation among low-income seniors in Hamilton, Ontario. Materials for the project can be found on socialisolation.ca.
I am encouraging the committee to consider adopting a life course approach to address senior women's poverty and vulnerability. Such an approach locates older women's needs in the context of their diverse backgrounds, experiences and events that have taken place across their lives, relationships and encounters with families and society, and the need for care in the context of existing services. Poverty and vulnerability do not simply happen to women late in life, but are the result of social structures, risk factors and experiences that unfold across the life course.
There are three ways that the committee might link witness testimonies and insights into an action plan to reduce poverty and vulnerability among older women: first, by viewing transitions as opportunities for response; second, by recognizing how needs and social backgrounds may intersect to produce or worsen vulnerability; and third, by developing strategies to prevent disadvantage from accumulating across the life course and into late life.
Prior to reviewing these three suggestions, I wish to call brief attention to the request made by the committee to focus on both poverty and vulnerability. Positioned as such, the call is for attention to both the more traditional measures of income security and the human dimensions of being vulnerable.
Differing from poverty, vulnerability evokes the question of whether needs will be met or not, and as such implies a moral and/or ethical responsibility to respond. A life course perspective focused on three dimensions of targeting key and often unexpected transitions as a point of response, accounting for intersecting needs and preventing disadvantage offers a pathway to address both poverty and vulnerability.
First, regarding the focus on transitions, a number of transitions can be identified for intervention. These include how divorce, separation or widowhood may alter women's income or housing through, for example, the move from home ownership to rented accommodation; how the onset of illness or impairment may prompt changes to labour, income, mobility or housing through, for example, part-time work or early departure as a result of injury; the short- and long-term impacts of im/migration related to care trajectories, including, for example, how low income and/or reduced pension contributions may affect financial security in late life; and transitions between locations of care, such as home, hospital and long-term care.
Second is the focus on intersecting needs and locations. Intersecting locations such as citizenship, disability, ethnicity, indigeneity, race and sexual orientation can affect older women's poverty and vulnerability. Our current research on precarious aging considers some of these intersections, in particular how lifelong disability that prevents full-time work, or im/migration after age 40, may impact financial security, access to care, and housing stability, and may produce vulnerability and unmet needs in late life. In another project, our research on homelessness revealed cases where people became homeless as a result of being evicted from rental units, sometimes after hospitalization. It also discovered older people who began using food banks or emergency shelters for the first time in late life.
Third is the focus on preventing disadvantage over time. Disadvantage can accumulate across the life course through structures that produce inequality and heighten insecurities and risk. For example, women's labour and care trajectories may result in poverty, which can have knock-on effects in relation to housing stability, access to care, transportation, health and well-being.
Consider, for example, the case illustration of frailty, which signals the transition to needing care, and how this demonstrates the relevance of taking a life course approach to poverty and vulnerability. The needs and experiences of a senior woman with low income who lives alone in rented accommodation will differ greatly from one who lives as part of a couple and has a work-based pension and care support, whether provided by a family member or purchased. Senior women who must rely on limited public services are particularly susceptible to having unmet needs in late life. At the same time, policy structures that rely on informal, low-paid and/or migrant care can also be considered to initiate disadvantage for younger women that may accumulate across the life course and into late life.
A life course perspective to addressing poverty and vulnerability among older women reveals the importance of developing approaches that reach across income, housing, health, transportation and care. Proposed solutions include strengthening public pension to protect those most in need, including consideration for unpaid care as part of the calculation; developing public care systems and accessible public transportation, particularly for low-income women; the provision of social housing that is safe and affordable and can accommodate changing mobility needs; and ensuring justice across programs to ensure that situations such as being discharged from hospital to the street do not occur.
In sum, I urge the committee to consider a life course approach to addressing older women’s poverty and vulnerability, which is based on three responses: target major points of transition; recognize how needs are impacted by intersecting social locations; and prevent disadvantage from accumulating across the life course and into late life.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I look forward to your questions.