Rising costs for seniors on fixed incomes and access to family physicians are common themes that B.C.’s seniors advocate has heard during a tour through the East Kootenays this week.
With stops in Cranbrook, Kimberley, Creston, and Sparwood, Isobel Mackenzie’s mission has a two-fold purpose to bring forward relevant news and information for seniors, while also listening and cataloguing issues facing B.C.’s seniors population.
Mackenzie said this has been her third trip to the East Kootenay in her nine-year tenure as the province’s seniors advocate, and each time she hears different themes that dominate the discussions.
Inflationary costs and access to family physicians have been a common refrain this time, she said.
“I am hearing more everywhere about rising costs,” Mackenzie said. “Everybody’s talking about rising costs, we’ve got inflation for the first time in eight years, but the difference is the incomes that seniors have are much smaller. So if your pension goes up by the rate of inflation, that sounds like a lot until you realize your pension isn’t that much.
“Six per cent on $10,000 is not that much.”
In her presentation, Mackenzie highlighted the financial challenges for low-income seniors, particularly renters who may not have significant assets.
In B.C., the average annual income for seniors 65 years and older is $46,000, however, the median income is lower, at approximately $34,000.
Between Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement, the median annual income for B.C. seniors is $7,700, rising to $8,700 as an average.
Approximately 62 per cent of B.C. seniors don’t have a workplace pension, and the average savings of a Canadian senior is $50,000.
Mackenzie also highlighted the cost of aging, as most seniors do not have a private extended health plan, nor are there any provincial government programs that provide dental care, optometry care, hearing aids, medical equipment, podiatry mobility aids.
“What is interesting, in the federal-provincial divide, is when it comes to seniors health care, we think of health care as free in Canada, because for younger people, health care is about going to the hospital and going to the doctor,” Mackenzie said.
“For seniors, it’s about a whole bunch of things that we charge for. So it is about going to the nursing home, to assisted living, to getting home support in your home, to getting incontinence supplies and things you might need as you age, and none of that is covered.
“If those things were considered federal, we wouldn’t pay for them.”
Mackenzie tours through East Kootenay communities
Mackenzie spent Wednesday morning meeting with local seniors and citizens at the Seniors Centre in Cranbrook, as the Seniors Meeting Seniors program conferred one of its two monthly meetings to host the event. She also attended a few other events with non-profit and advocacy organizations in the city, while also presenting to the Cranbrook Rotary Club on Thursday.
Based on 2021 census data, approximately 24 per cent of Cranbrook’s population is aged 65 and over. Provincially, there are approximately one million seniors living in B.C., 193,000 of which are in Interior Health.
Further breaking down provincial stats, 99 per cent of those aged 65 and over live independently, which falls slightly to 77 per cent at aged 85 and over.
Contrast that against nine per cent of seniors aged 85 and over who live in assisted living, and 12 per cent of seniors aged 85 and over who live in long-term care.
Mackenzie was critical of paternalism and loss of autonomy for seniors living in long-term care during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as gathering restrictions were implemented with the best of intentions.
“I think the other thing around the isolation and loneliness — it was, on one hand, inspiring to see how many British Columbians cared about their seniors and signed up to take them groceries and bring them medications when things were under threat,” Mackenzie said.
“On the other hand, the concern that we’re failing to recognize that no matter what age you are, you have needs of being with other people and for the best of intentions, either we isolated ourselves or the system isolated you and I think we need to recognize that we need to move forward now, embrace the future and understand that risk is everywhere.”
Acess to family physicans, specialists in rural communities remains a challenge
While the East Kootenay Regional Hospital serving as the hub of localized health care services, there remains a deficit of family physicians in Cranbrook and across the region.
Based on recruitment and retention data from the East Kootenay Division of Family Practice between May 2020-2022, eight family physicians were recruited to Cranbrook, and a total of 24 physicians to East Kootenay communities.
However, over that same time period, nine vacancies opened up in Cranbrook due to ongoing retirements, re-locations and the opening of the Urgent and Primary Care Centre.
In addition to rising costs, access to family physicians and transportation to the Okanagan to see medical specialists was a point of concern, particularly the challenges of navigating winter highway conditions when travelling to Kelowna.
While medical specialist recruitment to rural communities remains a challenge, reimbursement of travel costs to places like Kelowna or Vancouver is one policy response that can alleviate that financial pressure, Mackenzie said.
“What I think can be solved is the issue of cost,” she said. “What can’t be solved, in all cases, is the issue of inconvenience. We won’t get the specialist services delivered in the smaller communities, as much as we might want that…It will be, depending on where you are and your circumstances, inconvenient to go to another city for that specialist service.
“But it shouldn’t cost you, and that we can fix.”
As the province’s appointed seniors advocate, Mackenzie doesn’t have unilateral authority to make legislative or policy changes as that falls on the governing party based on lobbying and input from local elected officials and advocacy organizations.