Statement made on 28 June 2010 by Senator Sharon Carstairs (retired)
Hon. Sharon Carstairs:
Honourable senators, I rise to speak today on Bill C-40, which would seek to establish a national seniors day.
Honourable senators, seniors are not just seniors on October 1 of each year. They are seniors 365 days a year, and they deserve to be honoured on each and every one of those days for their lifelong contribution to this country and which, for the most part, they continue to serve each and every day.
Honourable senators, last April, I tabled in the Senate the report of the Special Senate Committee on Aging entitled Canada's Aging Population: Seizing the Opportunity. The report was the culmination of two and a half years of work.
Senator Chaput, Senator Cools, Senator Cordy, Senator Keon, Senator Mercer, Senator Stratton and I heard from 251 individuals in over 180 panels. We travelled across this country.
Honourable senators, not once did anyone, in any location, at any time, at any place, recommend a national seniors day. Our witnesses were concerned with the genuine needs of seniors, and to that end, we made 32 recommendations, not a single one of which has been acted upon by this government. Instead, we are offered a day to celebrate seniors without in any way helping their human condition.
Honourable senators, we made five broad recommendations specific to the federal government, and it is these five recommendations that I want to address this evening.
We urged the government to act immediately to take steps to promote active aging and to combat agism. To fulfill this recommendation, we recommended a public relations campaign to portray healthy aging and to present the benefits of staying active at all ages in volunteer work, in continuous learning and in physical activity. We urged that monies be provided to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to fund research on mental competency, mental capability and mental capacity. They need those funds if they are to do this research, and this government has not provided those funds. We recommended that the government amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to ban mandatory retirement, to bring it in line with every single province in this country, but we have not done that. We recommended that the government increase support for research into abuse and neglect issues facing seniors. I have congratulated the former minister responsible for seniors for the advertising campaign about the abuse of seniors. It is an excellent campaign. Unfortunately, without the research, it fails to get to the cause of abuse against seniors. We recommended the government address the sponsorship issue on immigrant seniors. If you are a spouse and an immigrant, you have to serve only three years of sponsorship, but if you are a senior, you have to serve 10 years of sponsorship. That, honourable senators, is not equitable.
Our second recommendation referred to the need to integrate care because we learned from witness after witness that to continue to separate health and social services in the country means that Canadians, in particular senior Canadians, will fall through the cracks. To promote this recommendation, we recommended an initiative to provide funding to provinces to enable them to move to integrated care. They cannot do it without federal leadership, particularly the smaller have-not provinces.
We addressed the need for affordable housing. The minister made reference in her speech to Canada's Economic Action Plan and its funding of new housing, but to date we have seen no new seniors' houses built in Canada.
We urged the federal government to work with the provinces to establish an independence program for seniors modeled on the Veterans Independence Program. Veterans Affairs Canada has it right. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, but other seniors require these services as well.
We made recommendations on palliative care. Palliative care is not only a seniors' issue, but the reality is that 70 per cent of all deaths in Canada are in the population over age 65. Seniors therefore have a clear need for palliative care services. In this area, we are going backwards. We were moving, as a federal government, toward a Canadian strategy on palliative care, but this strategy has been abandoned by the government. We had an end-of-life directorate in Health Canada. This directorate, too, has been abandoned, together with $1 million of funding. Federal research dollars have dried up. The federal government is letting down the dying in this country and the government is letting down seniors.
Honourable senators, we urged that senior Canadians be treated equally, right across this country. To achieve this equal treatment, we recommended a supplementary transfer program to bolster per capita funding in those provinces that experience a higher rate of ailing than other provinces. We also recommended a national formulary of drugs, leading, we hope, to a national pharmacare program, which is necessary if seniors are to be treated equally from coast to coast to coast.
Several months ago, in a speech from Toronto, I heard from a woman from Ontario whose only living relative is in Prince Edward Island. She wanted to go to Prince Edward Island to live out her last days, but she could not because her drugs were covered in Ontario but they were not covered in Prince Edward Island. This is not equitable, colleagues. We have a Charter right that guarantees us mobility, but if we cannot afford to live in one province because that province cannot afford to be as generous as another province because their tax base is so much more limited, then we do not have equality across this country.
Honourable senators, seniors in this country should not be living in poverty — yet far too many of them do. In her speech, the minister made reference to the Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan. She is correct; that has brought most seniors to a level of security that they have never before experienced in the history of this country. However, she failed to mention the Guaranteed Income Supplement because it will be only with an increase to the Guaranteed Income Supplement that those seniors presently living in poverty — single women, immigrants and Aboriginal Canadians — will be able to live above the poverty line.
Honourable senators, simple changes can be made. For example, if a person is looking after a child and that person has withdrawn from the workforce, the person can continue to pay into CPP. However, a person who withdraws from the workforce to look after an aging parent or a chronically ill person within the family dynamic cannot opt into a CPP benefit.
There needs to be an aggressive federal program to identify those Canadians who are entitled to the Canada Pension Plan, to Old Age Security, and to the Guaranteed Income Supplement. They identify those people in Quebec very successfully, but we do not in the rest of Canada. As a result, people who are entitled to CPP are not collecting; people who are entitled to Old Age Security are not collecting; and people who are entitled to Guaranteed Income Supplement are not collecting.
We stated in our report that the forms should be available in more languages; not only in English and French. Why do we not make them available in Aboriginal languages so that Aboriginal Canadians can be ensured that they will collect their benefits?
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
Senator Carstairs: Colleagues, caregivers are the unsung heroes of Canada, whether they care for children or for seniors; or whether they care for the physically and mentally handicapped. Many of these caregivers are seniors. Yet, honourable senators, for these caring seniors we do little.
Our committee made a number of recommendations, none of which have been acted upon. We recommended that the Employment Insurance Act be amended to increase the compassionate care benefit from 6 weeks to 13 weeks; to eliminate the 2-week waiting period; and to increase the benefit to 75 per cent of the earnings of workers. We asked the federal government to work with the provinces and territories to establish a national caregiving strategy. To date, no meetings have been held and no initiative has been taken in this area.
The minister made reference in her speech to the wonderful and enormous contribution made by seniors who volunteer in hundreds of organizations right across this country. She is correct; they do volunteer in incredible numbers. Yet, our committee learned of the out-of-pocket expenses of these volunteers, and we heard that some have given up these activities because they can no longer afford them. We recommended that the federal government work with the voluntary sector to identify mechanisms by which they can reimburse these expenditures, and we recommended that the needs of volunteers be the subject of further study in this chamber and/or by an expert panel to examine emerging challenges of volunteerism and the concept of a tax credit for volunteering.
The minister mentioned the additional funding to the New Horizons for Seniors program. That funding is a good thing, but this government has failed to address the greatest need of the New Horizons for Seniors program by ensuring multi-year funding for established programs so that they can make appropriate plans.
Not only is Canada's population aging — 25 per cent by 2031 — but so, too, is the health and social care workforce. The average age of a nurse in this country is 50, and we are not attracting sufficient numbers of young men and women into this profession. Nowhere is this gap more evident than in the field of gerontology. At present, we have 1370 pediatricians. By contrast, we have 250 geriatricians, of which only 150 are in practice.
This is why our committee recommended that the federal government support education programs within our medical schools and fund residency positions in our hospitals. Only two physicians presently are training to be geriatricians in Canada today. That number is clearly inadequate. Yet, this government has not acted. Nor have they worked with provinces and territories to address the training, recruitment and retention of home care and home support workers as part of the federal-provincial-territorial health human resource strategy.
Finally, honourable senators, the federal government needs to lead by example in those population groups for which it has direct responsibility. I specifically wish to address the needs of our Aboriginal people, for whom the federal government alone is responsible. Aboriginal seniors live on average 10 years less than other Canadians. They live in greater poverty, they live in poorer housing, and they live in overcrowded conditions. They live with poor nutrition and with greater health conditions, tuberculosis and diabetes to mention only two. Yet, the federal government does little to meet these needs. The infrastructure of long-term care homes in the Aboriginal communities that I have visited fall well below the standards in non-Aboriginal communities. There are few home-care support programs in any of our Aboriginal communities. All too often, seniors are forced to leave family and community and go to cities to access the care they need. This care is not what they want and some return home knowing they jeopardize their lives to do so, but being with family is their primary desire.
Honourable senators, this situation is unacceptable. There are many things the federal government should and must do, but we receive none of the things I have highlighted today. We have a piece of feel-good legislation that will in no way improve the lives of seniors in Canada. It is woefully inadequate to celebrate seniors for one day. We should celebrate them each and every day by ensuring that services are available to them when and where they need them, 365 days a year. The federal government can do so much more, and it is deeply saddening that this legislation is all they have to offer.