Canadians need a bill of rights to protect Seniors

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Recently James E. McGreevey, governor of New Jersey signed an Executive Order creating a seniors Bill of Rights “to support the independence, dignity and choice of citizens as they age.” If it is good for New Jersey, it must be good for Canada.

Ever since turning 60 last Christmas Eve, I have been increasingly worried about my future as a member of Canada’s fastest-growing segment of the population.

In my case these worries are not financial, but stem from the fact that this country as yet has no legislation against the emotional and psychological abuse of seniors.

Canada has no "Senior Aid Society" parallel to that for children, for example, and no Seniors’ Bill of Rights.

Worst of all, we live in a culture where the elderly among us are collectively considered a liability, not an asset.

In 2001, an estimated 4 million Canadians were aged 65 and older; this was a 67 per cent rise over just two decades earlier. By 2020, the number of us at 65 years or over is expected to hit some 6.5 million, rising to an estimated 9 million in 2040. By that time, senior citizens will account for more than 20% of all Canadians.

No wonder governments want to abolish mandatory retirement! If enough of those coming millions could co-operate by dying on the job, it would ease future strain on the Canada Pension Plan.

According to Health Canada, most seniors are capable of living on their own. But some 7% of those 65 and over now live in long-term supervised care facilities.

This could translate into more than half-a-million seniors in active care by 2020 and it is these elderly Canadians who could be especially vulnerable to abuse — financially, physically, mentally and spiritually — by families, professional care-givers, even total strangers. They have little or no protection now, and could face having even less, or none, in the future.

"Warehousing" or "parking" aged parents in nursing homes seems to be a prevailing habit of North American culture.

This has to change.

Any Canadian who brags or jokes about "getting rid" of Dad, Mom, dotty Aunt Sally, or hard-of-hearing Uncle Joe should be ashamed.

But our government, which now provides so few resources to combat the creeping malaise of seniors’ neglect, should be equally ashamed. Government could instead be part of the solution by offering financial incentives to immediate and extended families (similar to the child tax allowance) who want to take care of their elderly members at home.

When the poignant and powerful Emmy Award-winning CBC film Rage Against the Darkness, aired last month, it highlighted — mainly in seniors’ own voices — the difficult issue of whether or not to institutionalize those unable to live alone.

What is still missing, however, is any indication that a national debate will emerge on this urgent subject. I hope I am not alone in believing that a Seniors’ Bill of Rights should be debated now and brought to the forefront of Canadian consciousness with the same passion and intensity that we, as a nation, have invested in campaigns to protect the unborn, our children, or the welfare of animals.

It is profoundly depressing for any dependent individual to have to live 24 hours a day with strangers who are in the same age group. Seniors with very different physical or mental abilities are usually compelled to live side-by-side with no regard for their emotional or intellectual needs, making some nursing homes worse than prisons. At least in prison you know you have a good chance of getting out alive.

Seniors in Canada also have little or no protection against those who want to convert them from one religion to another. Any form of religious compulsion should be strictly forbidden by a Canadian Seniors’ Bill of Rights. Accessibility to clergy of their choice should be provided by families.

The financial and care-giving responsibilities of families toward their elder members should be fully codified in law. Education programs in schools could help prepare future generations at an early age for cultivating and nurturing multi-generational families. Having one’s elders living in their midst should not only be regarded as the "right thing to do" but also be a “cool” investment in the future of those who themselves will be elders one day.

Economically, seniors are often targeted as a lucrative consumer group because they often have accumulated the money to spend on a variety of goods and services. But because many lack the mental alertness to make sound judgments, they are also vulnerable to scams and fraud.

Some, like children, do need protection against high-pressure sales pitches for everything from home repairs, to investments, to medications. While it is difficult to regulate the free market, we have done it for minor-age children; it is time to consider doing the same for seniors.

The bottom line is that if we move as a country to protect our seniors, we will collectively enhance the human net worth of our society, seniors and all.

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* First appeared in The Kitchener Waterloo Record, Canada

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