BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie.

BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie.

Seniors Advocate debunks age stereotypes

"There's always life no matter what age you are," Isobel Mackenzie tells those gathered at the Ashcroft Seniors' Centre last week.

Isobel Mackenzie, the BC Seniors Advocate, was in Ashcroft on June 23 to make a presentation at the Ashcroft Seniors’ Centre and answer questions afterward from the 30 people who had gathered to hear her.

She began the presentation by debunking some of the stereotypes and scaremongering about seniors in the province, and encouraged people to look beyond the stereotypes about older people. She did this by introducing “Jane” and “Annie”, both of whom were in their 30s during the 1960s but were very different women. Jane was presented as the typical stay-at-home mom, and Annie was the free-spirited “hippie chick”. While Jane was at home cooking breakfast and supper every day and playing bridge with her friends, Annie was out protesting or going to Woodstock.

“No one would have thought these women had anything in common, or should be friends, back in the 1960s,” said Mackenzie. Yet fast-forward 40 years to today, she said, and it is assumed that both women want and need the same things because they are seniors.

This becomes even more of an issue in residential care, where people with little in common, and different wants and needs, are forced to live together in a proximity they may not relish. “We need to look at the diversity of people living together in residential care, and challenge the stereotype that people are all the same.”

Mackenzie debunked the notion that there is a “grey tsunami” about to break over us, as well as the idea that all seniors are rich; a statement which brought appreciative laughter from the audience. She also noted that since 65 per cent of seniors in the province live in urban areas, the needs of seniors in rural areas often get short shrift, even though the expectations of services in rural areas are much more modest.

“Rural seniors pay the same taxes and Medical Services Plan premiums, but there is much less available,” she said. “However, the resources the province depends on for revenue are in rural B.C. The challenge is to get people in Victoria to see this, and realize that rural B.C. is legitimate in the criticism that it is shortchanged in comparison with urban areas.”

She acknowledged that transportation and live-in home support are challenges in rural communities. This is a very real issue, considering that the vast majority of seniors do not go into residential care, and instead stay in their own homes or live with a relative.

Most of the questions following the presentation were about healthcare, with one audience member noting that she had gone to the doctor with an ache and been told “Well, at your age you have to expect this.” Mackenzie said that it was an indication that more needs to be done to combat ageism in the medical profession. She also spoke about the over-medication of many seniors.

The Journal was able to sit down with Mackenzie—who has more than 20 years’ experience  working with seniors in home care, licenced care, community services, and volunteer services—after the presentation, and asked what are the biggest challenges facing seniors in rural areas.

“Housing and transport,” was the prompt response. “In urban centres the problem is the cost of seniors’ housing, but there’s no place in town for rural seniors to move to, so we never get to the cost. People shouldn’t have to go to Kamloops; they should be able to find a place in their community.”

Transportation is also a huge issue in rural communities. Mackenzie said that although she is based in Victoria, she makes it a priority to travel to rural areas so she can hear what seniors there have to say, and lack of transportation is something that is brought up over and over.

She admits that while it is better financially for many seniors now than it was in the 1970s—“Seniors who were born in Canada have a guaranteed income slightly higher than someone on welfare”—she adds that a person on welfare has access to more benefits. “Health issues are more likely for a senior, but if they need financial help they may struggle.”

She would like to see the province expand the property tax deferral program to include such things as utility bills, strata fees, homeowners’ insurance, and utilities such as hydro. “It would be the next step for people who want to stay in their own home, by allowing them to access money to pay for 24-hour care.”

She agrees that the property tax deferral program should be looked at by seniors who need access to money because their quality of life is affected, but cautions against starting too soon. “Do you need the money, or do you want it?”

While abuse of seniors—financial, emotional, or physical—does happen, she cautions that the vast majority of seniors are not subjected to it. “I don’t think it’s prolific. And sometimes what is perceived by outsiders as abuse, isn’t.”

Mackenzie encourages seniors to be positive about themselves and their life. “There’s always life left no matter what age you are. There’s always a next day.”

The BC Office of the Seniors Advocate is the first of its kind in the country, and was established in 2014. It reports to the Ministry of Health and has its own legislation and legal responsibilities. The impetus to form the office came from a report of the provincial Ombudsperson that focussed on residential, home, and assisted living care for seniors.

The Office monitors and analyzes seniors’ services and issues in B.C. and makes recommendations to the provincial government and service providers to address systemic issues. The services monitored by the Office are in five key areas: health care, housing, income support, personal supports, and transportation.

It also provides information and referrals for individuals who are navigating seniors’ services and tracks their concerns. Anyone who needs assistance can call one of the Office’s information and referral analysts, Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at 1-877-952-3181.

For more information about the Office of the Seniors Advocate, visit the website at www.seniorsadvocatebc.ca.