Changing how society thinks about senior citizens

(Edmonton) Senior citizens are a drain on Canada’s health-care system. No longer productive, they take up too many precious resources. At least, that’s the assumption about the elderly, but is it accurate?

“In fact, Canadian seniors make huge contributions in lots of different ways—to the economy, to their own families and communities, and to society,” said Janet Fast, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Human Ecology.

To dispel unfair myths about senior citizens, Fast is joining forces with the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton (SAGE) to challenge assumptions society holds about older adults.

As part of her larger Research on Aging, Policies, and Practice program, Fast is working on a project in partnership with SAGE that included compiling a trio of fact sheets that raise awareness of seniors’ contributions as caregivers, paid workers and volunteers. The sheets, designed to turn front-line workers, politicians and policy-makers into ambassadors for older adults, was shared with participants in a June 14 workshop organized by SAGE.

U of A nursing professor Donna Wilson was also on hand to discuss misconceptions about how seniors use health-care services.

New perspective on older adults

The information, based on research by Fast, Wilson and other Canadian researchers, as well as data gleaned from Statistics Canada, government surveys and the National Seniors Council, brings out some points that “would surprise a lot of people,” Fast said.

Among the facts:

  • Older adults do an average of 233 hours of volunteer work and donate an average of $2,000 annually to charity.
  • Older adults' unpaid caregiving is valued at $3.8 billion per year.
  • Older adults spend four million hours providing unpaid child care each week. As well, 75,000 grandchildren live with their grandparents.
  • More than 500,000 older adults are employed and labour force participation for people aged 65 to 69 has doubled in the last decade.
  • Older adults are less likely to spend their last days in a hospital, and the oldest (aged 85 and up) are the least likely of all age groups to spend their last days of life in a hospital.

SAGE felt it was important to team with the U of A to get research findings out to the community about how seniors give to society, said Peter Faid, a member of the group’s advocacy committee.

“This is what the University of Alberta focuses on—dispelling myths and providing facts and details, and we want to share that so we are all better informed. It is important for us to get this across to the public,” Faid said.

“We need to discuss misconceptions and change our thinking about older people,” he added.

Fast’s partnership with SAGE will continue as future research focuses more closely on the role of seniors as caregivers. As well, she said, policy-makers and practitioners will be consulted about how best to support and encourage seniors to fully participate in society.

“They have so much to offer and are an untapped resource.”