The Sunday Magazine

Canada is unprepared for the demographic time-bomb hurtling at us

By 2031, nearly one-quarter of Canadians will be 65 or older, and we do not have the medical, social and financial resources in place that will be needed to cope with the demand.

Because of the boomer bulge, greater longevity and reduced birth rates, Canada’s population is aging rapidly

By 2031, nearly one-quarter of Canadians will be 65 or older. Studies show that exercise such as tennis, which requires social interaction, can increase life expectancy. Larry Adamson, 70, is starting a seniors' tennis meetup at the Yellowknife Tennis Club. (CBC)

Canadians are getting older. And we're not ready.

Like wealthy democracies the world over, Canada is edging toward a profound social, economic and financial shock, as the demographic composition of our society changes.

This is a fact that Sandra Martin understands well.

"Longevity is the new reality and I am in the vanguard of an emerging demographic trend," she wrote in a recent piece for The Walrus

We're still using a frame of reference from the past — that 65 is old.- Nora Spinks, CEO of The Vanier Institute of the Family

"My mother died at what would be considered now a very young age. She was 65," the author and journalist told The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong.

"She probably wouldn't have died at that age now."

With the boomer generation turning 65 at a rate of one every seven seconds, there are now more Canadians over the age of sixty-five, than under fifteen.

At 70, with a lot of life ahead of her, Martin finds herself in a different mindset than that of her mother. Martin has no intention of slowing down or retiring any time soon.

"So how am I going to manage that? That is the thing I want to know."

Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute says we Canadians have yet to wrap our heads around the increase in life expectancy. Award-winning author and journalist Sandra Martin says boomers have no intention of slowing down. (CBC/submitted by Sandra Martin)

"The massive increase in life expectancy is something that we haven't really wrapped our heads around from a policy perspective or from a program perspective," Nora Spinks, CEO of The Vanier Institute of the Family said. The institute is a national, charitable organization that studies the reality of family life in Canada. 

Because, she explained, "we're still using a frame of reference from the past — that 65 is old."

No stranger to change

For Spinks, the aging demographic is an asset; it's a population of people with years of knowledge and experience with time, energy and wealth to spare.

"If we can wrap our heads around 'how do we leverage this asset and find a way to deal with those who have more episodic, chronic or progressive needs?' then we'll be able to better adapt to this phenomenon that we're faced with," she says. 

Some P.E.I. seniors were recognized recently for their contributions to their communities — Grace Blackette, Evelyn Jenkins, Kaye Larkin, Ann Sherman and Fairley Yeo were announced as 2018's Senior Islanders of the Year at a ceremony in Summerside. The five women were honoured for things like leadership, fundraising, community participation, artistic achievement and volunteering. (Laura Meader/CBC)

The boomers are no strangers to adapting to change. They have changed the conversations around retirement age and brought the discourse about dying with dignity out into the open.

But, Martin said, "boomers have to start taking responsibility for their own lives and for the fact that they're aging."

If we don't make those choices, other people will make them for us.- Sandra Martin


"Nobody is in charge of us anymore. We've got to be in charge of ourselves."

"We have to get rid of this notion of 'Freedom 55' and relaxing, and start doing things to keep ourselves active and financially secure. If we don't make those choices, other people will make them for us," Martin warned. 

Choices like adapting Canada's universal healthcare system to an older population, for example.

"A health care system that was established for acute, brief illnesses for a younger population is not what's needed for an older population," Martin said. 

Seniors make up 40 per cent of all of the spending on prescribed drugs in Canada and yet, Martin explained, it's the only universal healthcare system in a developed country without a pharmacare program. 

"That's a scandal."