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In prosperous Canada, almost half of our elders have an income less than that of minimum-wage workers. In B.C., one in four seniors lives on less than $21,000 a year – barely enough to pay rent, let alone eat or get a tooth fixed.

Meanwhile, food prices are soaring, rents are on the rise, and government supports are stagnating.

Falling Behind, the latest report from B.C.’s indefatigable Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie, paints a sobering picture of the financial struggles of the province’s one million elders, and warns things will only get worse if governments don’t help.

While the report is B.C.-focused, every point in this data-heavy publication applies to the 6.4 million people in Canada’s over-65 demographic.

The prevailing concern of seniors, Ms. Mackenzie writes in the report, is affordability, especially since most live on fixed incomes. “Whether it is about paying rent, finding money for major home repairs, dental care, or any of the supports and services needed as we age, many seniors find the limits of their pension incomes a challenge,” she writes.

Older people tend to be portrayed in caricaturesque extremes: At one end, wealthy boomers with fat pensions and big stock portfolios living high on the hog, playing golf and sunning themselves in Florida or Arizona; at the other, helpless, sickly indigent residents hidden away in Dickensian nursing homes waiting to die.

The reality is that the vast majority of elders live in the community, largely dependent on government pensions; most live modestly, with growing numbers slipping into poverty each year, as their cost of living rises and incomes fail to keep up.

Falling Behind reminds us of the meagre benefits we can expect as we age: In B.C., around 90 per cent of seniors receive Old Age Security (OAS), at a maximum of $8,000 annually if you have at least 10 years of residency in Canada, while 90 per cent also receive Canada Pension Plan (CPP) benefits, to a maximum of $15,043 annually, depending on the number of years they worked. Only 28 per cent receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), a maximum of $11,952 a year if a senior’s income is less than $20,208. (The “maximum” payments can vary based on age, or whether payments are deferred, and the figures cited are for people whose benefits begin at age 65.)

On average, the three pensions (OAS, CPP and GIS) combined provide a modest annual income of $22,649.

Most provinces also provide a supplement to their poorest seniors. In B.C., it’s $99 a month, but only nine per cent of seniors receive it.

The report does not mention private pensions, but fewer than 40 per cent of Canadians receive those benefits and, when they do, government payments can be clawed back.

Governments can also be slow to increase benefits. Overall, seniors’ pensions increased 14 per cent between 2015 and 2020. The minimum wage increased 40 per cent in that same period in B.C.

With inflation soaring, seniors are having more trouble than ever paying the bills, especially for housing. While 80 per cent of seniors in B.C. own their own homes, soaring prices have been a mixed blessing. Many are sitting on valuable assets but can’t afford their property taxes, upkeep on property or the cost of moving.

Renters are in bigger trouble, with market rents in B.C. (and many other places) up 50 per cent in the past decade. The wait lists for subsidized and social housing are epic. In B.C., only 1 in 12 eligible seniors gets a spot annually; half of applicants wait more than five years.

The result, Ms. Mackenzie warns in her report, is that elders are ending up destitute and in nursing homes, at much greater cost to the state.

It’s often argued that modest incomes are okay because seniors’ major expenses – mortgage payments, child care, retirement savings – are behind them. That’s true, but they also have new costs, like health care.

A daily, 45-minute visit for home support costs seniors $8,800 a year in B.C., even if they have an income of only $28,000. (In some other provinces it would be much less.) Long-term care can cost $2,000 or more monthly, and you essentially have to deplete all your assets before getting subsidies.

While seniors get their prescription medications subsidized (to varying degrees) in all 13 provinces and territories, only six jurisdictions subsidize dental care, and only seven offer financial assistance with hearing aids and mobility devices. (B.C. offers none of those benefits, the report notes.)

The affordability crisis is going to become increasingly prominent in public and political discourse. As it does, let’s pay a lot more attention to the impact of this crisis on Canada’s elders.