Recent meetings on the Sunshine Coast have exposed a dire need for concentrated planning for our older population. More than half of our population is over 50, and while every other demographic group on the Coast has a special advocacy group, seniors do not. Their needs, both physical and financial, are not well known. Beginning here, Coast Reporter will help shine a light on some of their needs.
In many instances, Mary Gibson is one of the shadow people on the Sunshine Coast. She lives on a disability pension that doesn’t begin to cover her basic needs, and so she does what many senior women, and increasingly, single older men, do — she uses the food bank.
Since 2011 the number of older women using the food bank has climbed steadily, according to Dale Sankey, the coordinator, an alarming trend that Sankey said reflects the big number of Baby Boomers in our community and one that is echoed across Canada.
Several factors can contribute to the large number of impoverished seniors — sometimes the person’s spouse has died, high costs for safe accommodation on the Coast have left little for food, and in some instances the older person has burned bridges, leaving them nowhere to turn.
While Gibson’s story is similar in generalities to many others, her specifics are frightening because of the way she falls through social safety nets.
Now 61, her meagre disability pension has meant that Gibson cannot afford the new dentures she needs, and a broken plate six years ago has resulted in her bottom jaw being thrown out of alignment. Medication prescribed to combat her illness leaves her with severe acid reflux and stomach problems — problems her doctor has said could be alleviated by having more fresh vegetables and fruit in her diet. However, government red tape to replace her dentures or augment her diet have left the woman reeling from the sheer effort of doing so.
“This has just knocked me on my ass. Since April I’ve been filling out forms to get the food supplement [maximum of $200 per month], but they came back and said my doctor hadn’t proved it was a necessity. ‘[Her malnutrition] appears to be due to a lack of income rather than a result of her medical condition’ the rejection said. You have to be dead, dying or emaciated before you get a food supplement,” Gibson said.
There is an appeal process but it has “such harsh and stringent guidelines” that Gibson thinks it would be a waste of her time to apply.
The denture saga is a similar head-butting experience. Medical Services Plan, which will pay a portion of the costs of the new plates, has only a 1-800 number for contact. And it’s always busy. The balance of the cost should be paid by the Ministry of Social Services, but it appears that’s not a given. Gibson’s denturist’s office has not been able to contact MSP, so the teeth sit in limbo.
Gibson, who worked for the federal government many years ago for about five years, is no stranger to bureaucratic red tape.
“You have to change your mindset — think smaller and tighter,” she said.
And while she’s able in many ways to advocate for herself — she’s articulate and outgoing — even she is getting discouraged. She attempts to stay positive. Even with the miserable turn of the events of the past few weeks, she still volunteers at St. Mary’s Thrift Shop, but the road bumps are taking a toll.
“I try not to feel sorry for myself. My solution when I get angry is be proactive, otherwise I’d slit my throat. I’m frustrated, beaten and humiliated, and I don’t know where to go. And I’m still starving,” she said.
She’s not alone, a fact that informal advocate Jill Hightower finds troubling.
Hightower, 78, is tuned in to our community. She volunteers in various capacities and is worried about two segments of our population in particular.
“In our society the new old is from 50 [years] up. If you look at that group, there are many single women struggling. They may be hanging on to low-paying jobs or may not be able to get jobs. They may be divorced with children. What’s going to happen in a few years? And what about older women 75 and up, especially women over 80? They may have been married for a long time and their husbands have died. They’ve never worked and don’t qualify for anything but the basic pension. They’re in desperate shape,” Hightower said.
In many cases the senior has a family pet that has been his or her solace for many years and now she has to decide between feeding herself or the critter. It’s a cruel choice that many older people find themselves in, Hightower said.
Another concern is the cost of medication.
“They can pay for their medication or they can pay for their rent,” she said.
The lack of seniors’ advocacy has not gone unnoticed on the Coast. The Progress Plan, a project funded by the Status of Women Canada, managed by the Community Resource Centre and Sunshine Coast Community Services Society, is approaching organizations such as the Sunshine Coast Community Foundation to find funds to commission a seniors planning table.
The table, which would draw on best practices from other communities, would fill a need to act as a collective voice for seniors on the Coast, and perhaps most importantly advocate for Coast seniors with all levels of government. The table would include service providers including health, municipalities, education/libraries, safety and security representatives, social services and seniors.
“We are behind the eight ball with planning for [seniors]. The Grey Tsunami has been on the books for many years, and although service providers are struggling to meet the present and future reality, our strength and our solutions will come from working together using a community development approach,” said Pat Hunt, co-chair of the Community Resource Centre, in a presentation for the Community Foundation.
For Hightower and others like her, the time is now.
“[Seniors] don’t have the ability to speak up. Sometimes it’s pride. You don’t want to admit you need help. And because [seniors] are hidden, they don’t get the help they need. We need to make sure they do,” she said.