Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie On Priorities, Housing, And How To Move Ahead

Updated: Jan 4



By Spencer van Vloten

BC Disability


2020 turned the lives of many seniors upside down. With 2021 here, Spencer van Vloten talked to BC's Seniors Advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, about the best way to move forward in the new year and beyond.


Spencer: What would you like to see as priority spending for seniors in the new budget?


Isobel: Three things stand out.


1. One of the things the government has done during the pandemic that I would like to see made permanent is an increase in the seniors supplement. I want there to be a continuation of increased financial support for low-income seniors, quite simply because many seniors are struggling financially and an increase would make a big difference in their lives.


2. There must be a sufficient budget allocation for long-term care, to ensure that staffing levels and staffing wages are appropriate and consistent throughout province, as well as to ensure that the best training is provided. These staffing factors make an invaluable difference to the quality of care that seniors in long-term care settings receive.


3. I want to see budget support for non-medical community programs for seniors. There should be continued support for the Better at Home Program, but also ways to support various seniors centres and those programs that might not be part of Better at Home.


As has been highlighted during the pandemic, many seniors in BC are struggling financially, but there are also overlooked ways in which the pandemic has been hurting seniors.


When libraries closed, many seniors were cut off from the internet; when seniors centres or neighbourhood houses closed, this meant the loss of meals and consequently insufficient nutrition each week for seniors. There have been all sorts of effects like this.


There should be a well-rounded approach to dealing with the issues affecting seniors, and the budget must provide the resources to put this into action.


Spencer: As we deal with the pandemic, what communication is happening between you and the government?


We've been communicating and they have certainly taken into account some of my recommendations around visits, as well as recommendations in our reports, so they've been willing to listen and consider our suggestions, but right now they have their hands full.


Spencer: Do you think that, at this point, the government is doing all it can to support seniors during the pandemic?


Isobel: It's very difficult when in the thick of a pandemic like this to be able to fully analyze it; it's like trying to cook dinner in a kitchen being renovated, parts are shifting and so many different things are going on and changing on the fly.


We thought here in BC that the approaches in wave 1 were great and that’s why we had been so successful, but then wave 2 hit and created new problems that we had to adjust and develop new responses to.


I think the government has been learning as they go, and that while there have rightfully been questions about matters such as testing strategies and rules about visitations, they have been adapting well.


I believe the government's focus is currently on getting all seniors in long-term care vaccinated in next 8 weeks or so, and that for now this is where the bulk of their resources and time will be directed to when it comes to seniors.


Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie believes the pandemic has affected seniors in ways that are often overlooked


Spencer: With all the attention lately on the problems for older persons in long term care, why is there not more attention given to expanding home care to more than just personal care?

What about having seniors stay in their own homes as long as possible by bringing back the much needed home care services that past governments cut?


Isobel: The province will tell you that, in theory, we already have that type of home care program, but there's much more to it than that.


First, if you are on GIS (guaranteed income supplement) there is no co-payment for you to make, but if you aren’t on GIS there is a co-payment, and many seniors can’t afford to pay this. So we need to ensure that everyone who needs this type of help is able to get it.


Another part of the challenge is that home care has been gradually chopped up. I started my career just as they were cutting housekeeping services, and home care providers also used to drive clients to appointments, cook, help them get and take medication, and really do anything that would help the person live a good life in their own home.


But home care has gradually stepped away from offering this range of activities, and now only focuses on so-called higher level activities like dressing. It’s been too slashed up and we need a more holistic option for people.


Spencer: What can be done to make a middle option accessible, one for people who can’t live alone but don’t want to be in a nursing home?


Isobel: The government should look into providing more support for subsidized assisted living, and I have wondered why we haven't done more of this in BC. Policymakers must understand that people want to live in their own homes for as long as possible, and that this requires flexibility and a range of options, not just black or white approaches.


There are many people who can’t live in their own place, but still have the ability and desire to have some degree of independence. These people don't belong in a nursing home setting.


This middle option of assisted living is there for those who can pay for it, but it’s expensive and many aren’t able to afford it, and that's where the government should look to step in by providing more financial support for assisted living.


Helping educate seniors about their rights as renters is priority for the Seniors Advocate


Spencer: Housing is difficult on a fixed income, rents are high, lists for subsidized housing are long. 1 in 4 of Metro Vancouver's homeless population are seniors, and older adults are increasingly being pushed out of their long-time neighbourhoods because of affordability challenges.


What needs to be done to change this situation? And are there any particular resources or bits of advice you’d give to seniors struggling with affordable housing?


Isobel: BC’s housing situation has been the hardest on people who’ve been renters all their life---people who tended to live in the same place for a very long time. Up until 5-7 years ago rent tended to be fairly manageable.


But everything shifted around 5-7 years ago as rents skyrocketed, and landlords started to put max rent increases on seniors to pressure them out, so they could charge higher rents to new tenants. To put it simply, incomes haven’t increased at the same rate that rents have, and seniors are among the groups who are feeling the brunt of this the most.


1. There should a greater increase to the Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) program. There have been increases to SAFER, but not to the extent that they’ve kept up with rising rents.


2. Local and provincial governments should look at ways to lessen the effects of the constant renovations and developments taking place that displace seniors from their neighbourhoods. For example, they could consider development moratoriums until certain standards are met in the housing of seniors.


3. Education is also important, in particular, education for seniors around their rights as tenants and what legitimate reasons for eviction are. A landlord can’t just say “I’m going to renovate, here’s notice”, they need a permit. Older renters often lack confidence with this, and perhaps more than other renters will just accept what their landlord tells them.


My office will be working on resources for educating seniors about rental issues.


Spencer: Are there any positives or opportunities for growth we can take from the pandemic?


Isobel: There has been a widespread outpouring of concern for seniors. People have been horrified, and have spoken up to say that this isn’t good enough. Politicians have agreed and have given seniors more attention.


Especially when it comes to care homes, a lot of people didn’t know about these issues because they weren’t in a long term care home or didn’t have a relative in this care, but now there is no missing it.


A year from now—although there will still be room for improvement—I think our long-term care will be better than it was before the pandemic. We will see more attention not just on staffing levels, but also staffing compensation and training. The impact won’t be felt the next day, but into future things will improve and we will get a better long term care system out of it.


The commitment the government has made to expanding the At Home program, as well as establishing the BC 2-1-1 program, will also be beneficial moving forward.


I am confident that we can take something positive out of the tough year we had, and be better off for it.

Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. Get in touch by sending an email to spencer@bcdisability.com!