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Loucia Linkert, 60, snuggles and hugs her husband, Parkinson's sufferer Andrew, 72, at home in the kitchen of their apartment in Toronto on Dec. 8, 2011. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Loucia Linkert, 60, snuggles and hugs her husband, Parkinson's sufferer Andrew, 72, at home in the kitchen of their apartment in Toronto on Dec. 8, 2011. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Poverty

Contest highlights plight of needy seniors Add to ...

Twelve-thousand dollars is hardly a princely sum – unless it effectively doubles your income and opens up previously unthinkable possibilities.

For Loucia Linkert, the dozen thousand-dollar cheques stacked crisply on her kitchen table mean a year’s worth of rent she doesn’t have to worry about. And hydro bills paid on time, for a change. And covering dispensing fees for her husband Andrew’s Parkinson’s medication, which usually brutalizes their budget.

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“Now I don’t have to make a choice whether I feed him or give him his meds,” she said.

The Linkerts are more used to bad luck. Mr. Linkert had a pair of heart attacks three years after Ms. Linkert’s cherry-red sedan was struck at a west Toronto intersection, leaving her with a cane, migraines and nerve damage. Leukemia and hepatitis sidelined her from work altogether a decade later.

They haven’t been so lucky, Ms. Linkert said, since the two of them fell in love 33 years ago, when she worked at a Detroit brothel where he was a customer.

So Thursday was a welcome and stunning exception. “I cried, then I laughed, then I cried hysterically again.”

The money was donated by Seniors for Seniors, a Toronto-based company that employs more able seniors to provide home care for their more frail counterparts. Peter Cook, the company’s founder, got the idea for the contest to assist needy seniors when he realized more and more would-be clients were calling to tell him they would be interested in his services if only they didn’t cost so much.

“We get so many people calling our office saying, ‘I can’t afford that,’ ” he said. “We sort of tend to warehouse seniors – in their own homes, in nursing homes – and they’re just off the radar.”

So he put out a call to health-care providers and social workers: Did any of them know of seniors in need? The response was resounding. Mr. Cook sifted through the submissions and finally chose two households: The Linkerts and 86-year-old Madeline McEwan.

Now that word has gone out, he said, he’s being flooded with offers of additional assistance.

“We were overwhelmed with the volume of calls and offers for money and time. I can’t handle this,” he said. “Ninety-eight per cent of them say they didn’t realize it was out there.”

A greying population puts a strain on public services, the public purse and overstretched agencies whose mission is to help seniors in need. But Canada does exceptionally well, compared to its peers, when it comes to providing for its elderly. It has a lower rate of poverty than almost any other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development country, save for the Netherlands. And aside from a jump in poverty rates postrecession, those percentages have stayed relatively low.

In 2009, about 231,000 Canadian seniors were living in poverty – about 5.2 per cent of the country’s elderly population. That’s less than half the poverty rate for adults aged 18 to 64. In 2000, the United States’s poverty rate for the elderly was four times that.

Some analysts argue traditional methods of measuring poverty don’t take into account the elevated costs of living seniors often face.

The problem is pronounced in Canada’s biggest cities: Toronto’s senior poverty rate increased to 8.4 per cent in 2009 from 6.5 in 2005; Vancouver’s rate is up to 13.8 from 11.8. In Calgary, where it’s still fairly low, the elderly poverty rate has almost tripled since 2005 – to 4.2 from 1.6.

A TD Bank study from earlier this fall found Canadians 65 and over are accumulating debt faster than the rest of the population.

Staff at Toronto’s St. Clair West Services for Seniors say they’re dealing with needier clients – otherwise proud old folks who are much more frequently asking for help seeking subsidies to top up their incomes. In many cases, pensions, disability payments and even the guaranteed income supplement haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.

Narain Motwani, the group’s manager of community support services, sees seniors with diabetes go without diagnostic strips because they can’t afford the fees. As people live longer and as Canada’s demographic bulge shifts older, 21st-century family dynamics mean it’s becoming more common for seniors to live alone, often because their extended families live in other cities, provinces or countries.

“There are more high-need and high-risk clients living alone in the community,” Mr. Motwani said. “Older adults are very proud. A lot of the time, they don’t want to be asking for help.”

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