Can Canada really cope with the growing health-care needs of an aging population?

May 19, 2016
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Louise Bergeron


Louise Bergeron, Federal Retirees Advocacy and Policy Advisor Officer on health –related topics, attended the May 12th Canada Conference Board gathering entitled Healthy Canada: Future Care for Canadian Seniors to glean some insight and inform future discussions. She emerged with some reason for concern.


What really struck me after attending the Toronto conference is how ill prepared Canada currently is to meet the needs of this growing demographic. Innovative and creative solutions will be required to cope. While our health care system is first-class at managing acute episodes of illness, it is poor at managing chronic illness or providing support to seniors who prefer to stay at home for as long as they can.

The Globe and Mail’s health reporter, André Picard, presided as Chair of the conference and suggested that the emerging wave of seniors is more akin to a slow moving river than the oft-repeated grey tsunami. But even with the milder descriptor, the costs will be great - both financial and human - if this issue is not addressed.

It was obvious through surveys that people were misinformed about who pays for these services, with many respondents under the misguided impression that the government foots the bill.

The Conference Board’s Future Care for Canadian Seniors: Status Quo Report quotes the following sobering numbers:

  • By 2026, over 2.4 million Canadians age 65+ will require paid and unpaid continuing care supports—up 71 per cent from 2011. By 2046, this number will reach nearly 3.3 million.
  • Spending on continuing care for seniors will increase from $29.3 billion in 2011 to $184.2 billion in 2046. With nearly two-thirds of this spending provided by governments, spending growth will significantly outpace revenue growth for most provinces. *

Shortcomings in the health-care labour force only compound the issue. A strategy for recruiting and training people will therefore also be needed. Will our health care system, as we know it, be sustainable? It may need to change to adapt.

Conference presenters, which included Shirlee Sharkey  President and Chief Executive Officer Saint Elizabeth Health Care, Louis Thériault, Vice-President, Public Policy for the Conference Board of Canada, Sue VanderBent, CEO, Home Care Ontario , suggested some policies and approaches that could help mitigate some of these alarming issues. One of the most noteworthy policy suggestions was to educate Canadians about the realities that they will be facing in retirement and help them prepare for the costs of home care or long term care. It was obvious through surveys that people were misinformed about who pays for these services, with many respondents under the misguided impression that the government foots the bill.  Unfortunately, many of our own Federal Retirees members are faced with the unwelcome reality when they are in a crisis situation and need these services.

Health education would also help Canadians age well, prevent the burden of disease and lessen the need for healthcare interventions later in life.  Even those living with chronic illness could benefit from management interventions to improve their quality of life and reduce the need for health care interventions. 

We are interested in knowing how all levels of government will address the growing health-care needs of an aging population and what steps will be taken to ensure that supports are in place when they are needed.

As retirement looms ever closer for me, it is with some concern that I recognize that I am not as well prepared as I should be for my retirement and the implications that result, but fortunately there are still steps ( that I can take that can lead to a more favourable outcome.