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Financial planner Debbie Hartzman says it’s important for seniors going through “silver separation” to take some steps to protect themselves financially.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Canada's five million seniors are proving to be an independent bunch.

New data from the 2011 census shows only a small fraction of Canadians aged 65 and over are living in seniors residences, numbers that suggest retirees are enjoying decades of good health.

Even among seniors in their 90s, over half are living independently.

For federal and provincial leaders who are focused on the long-term implications of a growing elderly population, the new data will help inform decisions on everything from health-care funding to rules for public and private pensions.

Economists caution that it's hard to read too much into Wednesday's census numbers on Canadian families and living arrangements until more is known next year about incomes. It isn't known yet, for instance, how many of these independent seniors are living in poverty. Data on incomes won't be released by Statistics Canada until next year.

Still, McMaster University economics professor Arthur Sweetman said the data suggests some aspects of seniors policy may be more pressing than others.

"It's going to be less expensive on the health-care system but more expensive on the pension system," he said. "That's one of the big debates. If people remain healthy, then those years are not particularly expensive, or they don't need to be as expensive as you might think. Because the key thing that's expensive for the health-care system is the years just before you die, and it doesn't matter if you die at 65 or you die at 95."

If Canadians are living longer and healthier lives, that adds fuel to the debate over whether they are saving enough for retirement. Many private-sector employers have moved away from guaranteed defined benefit pensions, and personal savings took a hit during the recession. The current low-interest-rate environment does not encourage Canadians to save more.

The federal Conservative government is promoting its new Pooled Registered Pension Plan, but many critics question whether it will accomplish much. Labour groups and the opposition NDP continue to push for higher mandatory Canada Pension Plan premiums to pay for more generous CPP benefits, which are guaranteed by the government.

Wednesday's census data found 56.4 per cent of seniors were living as part of a couple, up from 54.1 per cent in 2001. The proportion of senior women living alone has declined, which Statistics Canada says is likely due to longer life expectancies for men.

The percentage of Canadian seniors living in "special care facilities," which includes nursing homes and long-term care residences, was 7.1 per cent in 2011, up slightly from 6.3 per cent in 2006.

TD Bank senior economist Sonya Gulati said increasing numbers of seniors will inevitably mean rising health-care costs, but governments have a financial interest in encouraging more seniors to live independent healthy lives.

"Given the fact that they are choosing the couple route, that's good news because that means they're living in private dwellings and not necessarily relying on nursing homes," she said. "There are health benefits for seniors living together. There's company, there's also somebody close by in case something happens."

Linda Nazareth, an economist with the McDonald-Laurier Institute, said she wonders if the trend of more seniors living as couples will continue given the higher divorce rates of the baby-boom generation, which is just starting to enter retirement. She said it's clear that many Canadians are not saving enough, which can create a financial incentive for couples to stay together.

"Would you rather live in poverty or live with your spouse?" she said. "I don't want to say that's what they're doing necessarily, but it might come down to that."

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