Nova Scotia·High Cost Of Getting By

Cape Breton seniors struggle to make ends meet

Pensioners say government increases are not enough to cover inflation, fuel and food costs.

'When you make up your budget, you've got very little left'

Cyril and Margie Keeping stand in the kitchen of their former North Sydney home that they rented-to-own for the past nine years. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

This story is part of a series from CBC Cape Breton called The High Cost of Getting By. In the series, reporters examine how the rising cost of daily living is affecting people on the island. For the last several months, reporters from our newsroom spoke with people who are struggling because of the high costs of basic necessities like housing, food, and home repairs. 

Cyril Keeping and his wife Margie were barely getting by last December when their hot-water furnace sprang a leak. 

The North Sydney couple had been renting to own their home for nine years and they couldn't afford the $7,500 needed to fix the problem.

The two seniors looked around at government grants, but Cyril said most were only available to homeowners and landlords.

"I have a new roof on it, new oil tank — these are investments that I'm supposed to make in the house," said Keeping, age 72.

"Now I have to give it up. They're forcing me to do it. Why don't they just give me a grant and let me live in my own home? They're talking about keeping seniors in their own homes, hello."

Last December, the province launched a $32-million yearly grant, providing seniors who rent or own their homes with up to $500 for expenses like snow removal, small household repairs, lawn care and grocery delivery.

Seniors aged 65 and over must have an annual household income of $37,500 or less, but Keeping said $500 isn't enough to fix his problem. 

Cyril Keeping’s hot water furnace started leaking In the fall of 2021. An estimate to fix the problem was more than $7,500. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

'Everything costs us a fortune'

Keeping began working at age 16, and held various jobs before embarking on 20-year career as machinist and diesel mechanic.

"People used to talk to me and say, 'Well you should save for the future,' " he said. "But when you're young, it never enters your mind. It should be taught in school right from the very beginning, especially today's society, because everything costs us a fortune." 

Keeping receives no company pension. Instead his family's primary source of income comes from Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan.

Every year, costs continue to rise, but Keeping said his pension doesn't keep up. 

"We worry all the time. We're paying it out in groceries, we're paying it out in fuel. Everything is there to take it all away. And when you make up your budget, you've got very little left." 

'We got thrown under the bus'

Joseph Boozan uses a walker to get around his seniors' apartment in Glace Bay. Boozan has trouble making ends meet after working for three decades, mostly at jobs that paid minimum wage. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Joseph Boozan is also struggling to make ends meet. The 65-year-old has no savings or investments after working minimum wage jobs for three decades. 

Boozan cancelled his cable because he could no longer afford it. 

"Minimum wage doesn't cut it," said the Boozan, who lives in Glace Bay. "You're just there to pay the rent; you're paying the hydro bill. I just try to stretch as far as I can."

Boozan said he faces tough decisions at the grocery store, and often switches to cheaper cuts of meat to lower his bills. 

What would help, he said, is a raise to his Old Age Security pension.

The federal government will provide seniors aged 75 and older with a permanent 10 per cent increase to their pensions this July

But Boozan said that leaves younger seniors behind.

"We got thrown under the bus. They should have given it to everybody, all seniors."

CBC News requested an interview with Canada's Minister of Seniors Kamal Khera about the pension increase decision. Khera provided an e-mailed statement instead. 

"Data has repeatedly shown us that older seniors are more likely to outlive their savings, be unable to work, be widowed and have increased health care needs," her statement read. 

Helping hands

Claire Turpin, left, and Kathleen Whelan formerly ran a Meals on Wheels program in Sydney. Both Turpin and Whelan say many people working in the non-profit sector are experiencing burnout. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

The Sydney staff of a charitable food service are hearing from seniors looking to skip meals. 

"It's a horrible feeling to feel like you're not providing someone with what they need," said Claire Turpin, former program manager for Meals on Wheels in Sydney. 

"On our end we're just saying, 'No, we're going to figure it out.' "

Demand for the service spiked during the pandemic. Meals on Wheels doubled its orders from 12,500 to 25,000. Most of their clients' meals are subsidized. And in order to make up the cost difference, Meals on Wheels relies on sales from a café known as A Better Bite. 

Meals on Wheels in Sydney also depends on volunteer drivers, but Turpin said money for fuel isn't going as far as it used to. 

"This type of programming exists because people care — and we're silently taking on that work right now," she said.

"You will see in the next five to 10 years people will be stepping away from that work because it's just insane. It's burnout. It's crazy."

Meals on Wheels kitchen staff Shannon MacNeil and Shane O’Handley prepare salad kits for their customers, the majority of whom are seniors. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Moving out

Cyril and Margie Keeping have left their rent-to-own home and moved into a seniors complex.

He says an emergency fund for people in their situation could have kept them in their home.

Nova Scotia's Minister of Seniors Barbara Adams said she'd like the improve the senior grant program, but she first wants to take a hard look at government finances. 

"It is frustrating that almost the same people are eligible for all of the grants, and then the rest don't get anything," Adams said. 

"We have to start looking at, not just the very lowest of income seniors, but those higher up, because they certainly have those needs."

Keeping said while governments work to figure out how to pay for services, seniors like him and Margie, are being left out in the cold.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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