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Seniors falling behind amid rising costs, too few supports, says watchdog

The costs of aging at home are escalating and seniors are struggling, which sometimes leads them to enter long-term care prematurely, Isobel Mackenzie said Thursday
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Isobel Mackenzie released a 55-page report that examines the incomes and expenses of seniors against the effectiveness of government supports, services and subsidies, based on a survey of more than 1,600 seniors. VIA B.C. GOVERNMENT

B.C. has some of the highest costs for seniors but the fewest financial breaks or supplements, which might explain why a higher proportion are prematurely entering long-term care in the province, says a report by B.C.’s seniors watchdog.

“There is a growing concern that the costs of aging at home are escalating and that seniors are struggling,” Isobel Mackenzie said in a news conference at the B.C. legislature on Thursday.

A 55-page report released by Mackenzie Thursday — called B.C. Seniors: Falling Further Behind — examines the incomes and expenses of seniors against the effectiveness of government supports, services and subsidies and makes 10 recommendations to the province, based on a survey of more than 1,600 seniors.

The report says B.C. has a much higher proportion of residents in long-term care with low-care needs — meaning they could likely be cared for in the community with supports — than most other provinces, in particular Ontario and Alberta.

B.C. seniors want to age in their own homes, but the costs of aging in place are escalating and many seniors are falling behind, said Mackenzie, who notes half have minimum-wage incomes.

Most rely on government pensions for the bulk of their income, she said, but pension incomes are not keeping pace with the rising costs of housing, food, personal care and social supports.

On average, pensions provide seniors in B.C. with an annual income of $22,649. The federal Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan are used by 90 per cent of those age 65 and older, while a further 28 per cent access the federal Guaranteed Income Supplement available to low-income seniors.

In addition, the B.C. Seniors Supplement tops up federal supports for the lowest-income seniors, but despite doubling to $99.30 per month in April 2021 — the first hike since 1987 — it remains the fourth-lowest subsidy in the country.

B.C. seniors have a median annual income of about $30,750, according to Statistics Canada, with male incomes 40 per cent higher than female incomes.

Ensuring seniors can pay their rent, manage household expenses, afford basic home care and receive other needed health services is more cost-effective than placing them a long-term-care home, which exceeds $75,000 a year, says the report.

The report finds B.C. is providing less support for seniors than other provinces in nine key areas, from the lack of a seniors dental program to insufficient rent supplements and the lack of a home-repair program.

The report says 94 per cent of seniors in the province live in their own homes.

The percentage of seniors entering retirement with a mortgage is increasing, and about 30 per cent of those surveyed who are on low incomes reported that they cannot afford needed major repairs to their homes, said Mackenzie.

Those in the most urgent need, however, are the more than 200,000 seniors who rent, who are predominantly single women in a lower-income bracket who are long-time renters, the report says.

Over the last decade, market rents have increased 50 per cent and the allowable rent increase for continuing tenancies has spiked 34 per cent, while pension incomes have risen just 25 per cent during the same period, said Mackenzie.

Twelve out of 13 provinces and territories offer a rent subsidy for seniors, but B.C., with the highest rental market in the country, according to the report, has the third-lowest income cap for eligibility to receive a rent supplement.

To be eligible for the Shelter Aid For Elderly Renters program for low-income seniors, available to those 60 and older, renters cannot have an income greater than $30,600 and must pay more than 30 per cent of gross monthly income on rent. Most have incomes between $15,000 and $24,999.

There is also a cap on rent for those in the program — $767 a month in Victoria, for example, which was last updated four years ago. Yet, according to Rentals.ca, the price of an average one-bedroom rental in Greater Victoria in August was $1,756.

“The gap is significant,” said Mackenzie, who argues the rent ceiling should relate to average rents and be indexed to allowable rent increases.

Mackenzie said subsidized seniors housing for which seniors pay 30 per cent of their income is a “very good program,” but there is a shortage of units and the expanding definition of who is eligible has led to “a slow but perceptible erosion” in the number of units occupied by people 65 and older, said Mackenzie.

Seventy-three per cent of the 31,101 units designated as seniors subsidized housing are occupied by seniors.

The report recommendations include:

  • Indexing the B.C. Seniors Supplement to inflation
  • Redesigning the Shelter for Aid For Elderly Renters program to reflect the reality of the the economy and rental market
  • Raising awareness about the property tax deferral program for those 55 and older, where the province pays the tax to local government and the deferred taxes are repaid when the house is sold.
  • Developing a program to help low and modest-income seniors with home repairs (B.C. is one of just three provinces that does not offer a specific program for home repairs or maintenance for seniors).
  • Eliminating the daily rate for publicly funded home-support services (a single senior with an annual income of $28,000 receiving a 45-minute daily visit of home support will be charged $8,800 a year for the service)
  • Giving extended health benefits to seniors needing eyeglasses, hearing aids and mobility aids, for example. (Seven out of 13 provinces and territories fund hearing aids, but not B.C.) When seniors need a device to raise a toilet seat, or install a grab bar or use a walker or a cane, “they have to buy it,” said Mackenzie. There is no help for those without extended benefits, she said.
  • Working with the federal government to ensure dental coverage for seniors (six out of thirteen provinces and territories offer a seniors’ dental program, but B.C. does not. )
  • Plan to increase the capacity of seniors’ centres across B.C. to better support social engagement and help seniors live independently.
  • Provide an annual province-wide bus pass for all seniors that includes handyDART based on a sliding scale matched to income.

 

BC Seniors: Falling Further Behind is available online at: seniorsadvocatebc.ca/osa-reports/falling-further- behind-income-and-affordability-gaps-of-b-c-seniors/

ceharnett@timescolonist.com