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The Debate

Globe columnist Margaret Wente squares off with lawyer and former seniors' advocate Susan Eng over whether Canada is coddling its seniors. This is the latest entry in the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Great Canadian Debates in Ottawa on October 25, 2016.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
Margaret WenteGlobe and Mail columnist
Debate contributor
Susan EngLawyer and former executive vice-president of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

The Discussion

Debate contributor
Canada's seniors have never had it so good

Margaret Wente : If you’ve got to grow old (and you have to admit it sure beats the alternative), there’s no better place to live than Canada today. We seniors have never had it so good. We’re the wealthiest generation in history. We’re vastly healthier and longer-lived than our great-grandparents. And please don’t call me a “senior,” because I’ll swat you with my yoga mat.

Canada has done exceptionally well by its seniors. In the 1970s, nearly 40 per cent of Canadians over 65 lived in poverty. Today, depending on how you measure, it’s around 7 per cent. More children live in poverty than seniors do. According to the Conference Board of Canada, our seniors are among the most well-off in the world. Not everyone is doing well, of course, and there are big gaps in seniors’ health care. But the transformation in the circumstances of the elderly is one of the greatest triumphs of the welfare state. Let’s face facts: most of us don’t need subsidized bus tickets any more.

Young adults today aren’t going to get the same breaks we got. They know we’re the Lucky Generation. We got good pensions and benefits. Our houses turned into gold mines. We enjoyed investment returns and, yes, a standard of living that many of our kids can only dream of.

Our biggest challenge has changed. Now that we’ve ensured our own security, we need to ensure that the system is sustainable for future generations. The triple threat of an aging population, longer lifespans and lower fertility creates a demographic challenge the likes of which we’ve never faced. Simply put, today’s level of entitlements threatens to suck the lifeblood from future generations. That’s nobody’s fault. It’s just reality. It’s just not fair to get them to pay for our cheap bus tickets any more.

We need to do two things. First, we need to update our notions of “old age” to better fit today’s realities. Second, we need to target our support to those who need it most.

The idea that 65 is the threshold of old age is obsolete. When old-age pensions were invented, most people didn’t even live that long. Today, a lot of us will spend more years in retirement than we did at work. The idea that there is some arbitrary cutoff for productive lives is a stupendous waste of human potential. We need to change our focus from retirement to unretirement-- so that people can keep on contributing in some fashion well into their late 60s and even beyond.

We could also save billions every year simply by introducing some minor and gradual changes to old-age entitlements. Take Old Age Security. The last government passed a law to change the eligibility age for OAS from 65 to 67. It wouldn’t have taken full effect for many years. We could have saved $11-billion a year. But the seniors’ lobby wouldn’t hear of it, so the current government rolled back the change. Nobody wants to pick a fight with angry seniors.

Not everybody needs OAS--and nobody paid into it in advance. Yet we pay OAS to people who make over $100,000 a year. That’s just dumb. We’ve got to target more of our seniors benefits so that the money goes to people who really need it. People who drive around in fancy cars don’t need free drugs. They don’t need the younger generation to pay for every last cent of their health care.

A few strategic changes today will help us sustain the system for tomorrow. Some day our grandchildren will be seniors, too. We want to make sure there’s something left for them.

Debate contributor
Canada needs to prevent poverty and undue suffering in old age

Susan Eng : Some ask, “Must Canada stop coddling its spoiled seniors?” The answer is no, not unless we can find any who are coddled. In targeting this mythical group, we risk undermining the few public programs aimed at preventing poverty and other indignities in old age.

It’s true that Canadians are living longer, healthier lives. Poverty rates among seniors have fallen dramatically – largely due to the maturing of the Canada Pension Plan and workplace pensions. But the CPP effect is done and workplace pensions are disappearing. So poverty is creeping up again.

As recently reported, senior poverty has increased from a low of 3.9 per cent in 1995 to 11.1 per cent, or one in nine, in 2013. Fully 28 per cent of single female seniors and 24 per cent of single male seniors are living in poverty in this country. In human terms, that’s 665,000 Canadian seniors living in poverty, mostly the oldest, mostly single women. These people are not spoiled. Canada’s social welfare system keeps them out of penury, just.

These people are not coddled either. The maximum annual OAS/GIS benefits for single seniors with no other source of income is $17,311, barely enough for rent, food and medication. Yes, medication. Many drugs are covered for seniors but not all, especially not the more expensive biologics – which are not just for rare diseases, but include eye-watering costs for treating arthritis, a condition that affects over two million Canadian seniors. Those who cannot afford even the co-pays for their medication start splitting pills or skipping treatment altogether.

So it comes as no surprise that seniors are staying at or returning to work. The number of seniors in the labour force doubled in the last seven years. Half the people staying in the work force say they love their work, the other half need to keep working, or need to keep their health coverage.

Even middle-income Canadians face a substantially reduced living standard in their future so-called coddled years because they have not saved, or could not save, enough. And the studies that came to that conclusion did not factor in long-term care costs. Our hospitals are great at patching up a broken hip or saving our lives after a heart attack or stroke but don’t have much to offer after we get home.

Post-acute care or chronic-care costs are largely borne out of pocket. The patchwork of community care services barely meets the demand. Families that cannot pay the thousands a year for private home care, do without and quality of life suffers. Those without families deteriorate even more rapidly.

Boomers just entering senior-hood are revelling in new-found seniors’ discounts – whether for movies, bus rides or shampoo. And if they are not among the very poor, they are having a grand time of it. Some of them may say, “I don’t need the government to pay for my [prescription] drugs.” Home care is not even in their lexicon. Then they fall on the ski hill, or get that diagnosis, or their mom has a stroke. Sticker shock.

Plus they have no Plan B. The health-care system that Canada’s health ministers are busily negotiating has no strategy to address the chronic-care needs of our aging population.

Public policy concerns itself not with the luxuries but the basics – preventing poverty and undue suffering in old age, not just to improve the averages but to keep that promise to everyone.

Every cut in program budgets or restriction in income supports forces those “below the line” further down, even if everyone else just feels a pinch. There’s no coddling here.