Globe and Mail public health reporter and award winning writer, André Picard is one of the 58 contributors to my New Year's series, Becoming Visible. I asked those I profiled or referenced in my 2010 blog columns to answer the following question: What would you like to become more visible in 2011?
André is also a best selling and award winning author whose expertise and expositions on health and social care are respected by advocates and decision makers alike. Here is André's answer to, Becoming Visible.
The Contributions of Seniors to a Healthy Canada
It is stated repeatedly – to the point of being accepted as fact – that the aging population is driving health-care costs through the roof. Aging baby boomers, we are told grimly, will bankrupt medicare.
It’s not true.
It is true is that the proportion of Canadians who are seniors is increasing. Today, 14 per cent of the population is over 65. That will rise to 23 per cent over the next 15 years, according to Statistics Canada.
It is true, too, that per capita health spending increases steadily with age, from a low of $1,223 at age 5 to $3,772 at age 65. After that, per capita health spending doubles every decade, hitting $8,425 at age 75 then $16,821 at age 85.
Looking at those numbers we assume, intuitively, that we are doomed.
But those numbers tell only part of the story.
Life expectancy is at an all-time high. A boy born today in Canada can expect to live to 80, a girl to 83. And those figures factor in all the people who will die young.
A more relevant figure is the life expectancy of today’s seniors. A 65-year-old Canadian male can expect to live another 18 years, and a 65-year-old woman 21 more years.
They will live the large majority of those years in good health. Just look around: There are a lot of healthy, vibrant, 70, 80 and 90 year-olds.
My 90-year-old uncle plays the tuba in a Dixieland band – and one of his favourite gigs is playing for the "old folks" in nursing homes – when he’s not sailing, volunteering at church, dancing, hosting dinner parties and travelling. And he’s not atypical.
Of course, my uncle won’t live forever. Neither will his peers. In the last months (and maybe years) of life they will ring up significant healthcare costs.
But that hardly makes them parasites.
Older Canadians have spent decades paying taxes, contributing to the public insurance plan that we call medicare. How can be begrudge them collecting on their insurance when they have dutifully paid the premiums?
Aside from the individual financial contributions, the Boomers (and those before them) have helped create a health system – and a social welfare system – that is the envy of the world.
They have helped create the Canada we have today, one that is as wealthy and healthy as any nation on Earth.
The lifetime contributions of our seniors need to be not only more visible, but respected and honoured.
Aging is inevitable, but ageism is not. The vilification of seniors – granny-bashing posing as fiscal prudence – offends Canadian values.
NOTE: the PDF containing all contributions to this series will be available on January 1st. The series can also be accessed here.