I remember my mother telling me about a friend of hers whose husband had passed away. She was now on her own. My mother told me of how, when they spoke, she could tangibly hear the loneliness and emptiness in this woman’s voice.
Then, one day this woman told my mother of how her son and his wife had let her know they were going to move in with her. The next time my mother spoke with this woman, they’d moved in and the difference it had made was clear. Her voice rang forth with a vibrancy and contentedness that previously had all but withered away. No more. Growing old is a privilege, although it often doesn’t come free of charge.
When we’re growing up, it’s understood that for a certain amount of time, we’re in need of care. That only makes sense. Anyone tending a baby, toddler, teen or tween gasping for independence still knows he or she remains the carer for this individual.
Then, even after a child has become an adult, there remain moments when the parent, the former carer, must again step in. Has the child developed an illness? Has their marriage broken up? In both these common instances, the former child is essentially again in need of care. I’m sure we’re all aware of elderly parents who have had to step in to give additional care to their children.
Things get a little tangly, however, when adults grow to an age when they are, again, increasingly, in need of care themselves. Before looking at the situation in modern times, it might be useful to better understand how things were done in the past.
Elder Care Centuries Ago
Years ago, things were much different. Newfoundland was separate from Canada until 1949. However, the treatment of the elderly would’ve likely been much the same in Newfoundland as in Canada. Both were taking their lead from Britain.
First of all, life expectancy was considerably lower than it is now So, there were fewer people in need of care than today. Plus the number of elderly relative to the younger population was far lower decades ago. In 1921 in Canada, those over the age of 65 only made up 4.8% of the population. The trend was likely much the same in Newfoundland. Ten years later, for Canada, it was 11.8% of the total. In 2022, that percentage has climbed to 18.8%.
Up until the late nineteenth century, there was little call for institutionalised care. In fact, at the time, the elderly were not identified based solely on their age. Rather it was invariably some other feature that brought them into care of some sort—poverty, physical and mental decline.
In this sense, the care of the elderly would be taken on by a hospital centred on either physical or mental health challenges. In Canada, certain institutions unexpectedly played the role of “caregiver.” At the beginning of the nineteenth century, too often, it was, the jails.
For those who lacked any family member to care for them, their only crime was simply the inability to care for themselves. Such was the final destiny for too many aged, poor, and insane. In outport Newfoundland, the elderly were cared for by their families. It was common for several generations to share the home.
Although, with the coming of the twentieth century, care for the elderly improve marginally. The government introduced the Newfoundland Old Age Pension Programme in 1911. However, it only applied to those who were aged 75 or more. Secondly, it was restricted to men. So, it had its limitations.
When Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, the Old Age Pension became available. It offered assistance to all British subjects (i.e. Canadians) over the age of 70. In 1965, the government lowered the eligible age for Old Age security to 65.
Elder Care in Modern Times
I’m sure we can all look around and find those 90 plus independents who are still fending for themselves. Those who are able to live in such circumstances are not only fortunate, they are rare.
It’s important to bear in mind the more bleak realities we must sometimes face when we’re older and unable to completely care for ourselves. What then are the options available to the elderly?
The most ideal circumstance has us remaining in our own home, certainly for as long as possible. Research actually indicates most elderly want to live near, but not with, their children. The goal is to hold onto their independence and freedom.
Regardless of our age, our freedom is a preeminent value. When do I want to eat? Where do I want to go today? What do I want to do? We utter these words with determination and a stab of stubbornness. Unfortunately, when individuals choose to reside in a retirement home, many of these elements of free will are lost.
There are also a host of other challenges the elderly face in these institutions. There are invariably staffing issues. Another friend of my mothers shared the difficulties of life in a senior’s residence. When staff do arrive, they are restricted in the amount of time they can spend on duties such as dressing or administering medication. This woman sometimes feels the staff’s impatience, lack of care and reluctance to lend a hand.
And we can’t help but respond to the complaints of staff shortages with a raised brow. Is this truly a lack of qualified employees or is it merely a reluctance of the owners to increase wages to draw in more skilled workers? Too often the organisations running these senior homes are for-profit businesses. So, ultimately, making money and maybe as a not caring for others is their main priority.
For some adult children, there’s a determination to ensure their parents remain free of any institutional care, until it is absolutely necessary. More need to be taking this avenue. I’m sure we’re all familiar with situations where this is working. Still, we’re likely all aware of situations where the adult children would be more than equipped and able to care for their elderly parent. With the advent of homecare, this is even easier an option. Yet, instead, the elderly parent is delivered to either a senior’s residence or a nursing home. Job done.
While the ideal would be for seniors to live independently, sometimes, it’s essential for someone, likely a family member, to be living with the senior. By its nature, this form of intergenerational living is nothing new.
Decades ago, in places such as outport Newfoundland, it was likely the understood transition for older family members, parents, uncles or aunts to remain with their families when they needed additional care. In my own family, it was my mother’s sister who took care of my grandfather, as well as my two unmarried great-aunts until they passed on. Anecdotally, I’ve heard several people explain how it was much the same in their families.
More and more, this is the approach some in our current times are choosing to adopt and live. Seniors are actively taking on young adults as renters.The agreement is the young renter will provide assistance to the elder, like taking out the garbage. Otherwise, they may help with computers or those “smart” appliances which often defy all sense, regardless of age.
There are no doubt a cauldron of challenges facing elderly care. Although, it’s fairly simple the ingredients to a fulfilling life for our elders. Whatever we choose to do, it must be guided by a love of freedom and dignity. These are ultimately the key elements to a happy and gratifying life.
Canadian Museum of History 2022 “The History of Canada’s Public Pensions” https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/pensions/cpp-timeline_e.html
Emodi, Barbara 1977 “A History of Long-Term Care Facilities For The Elderly in Canada” (n.p.: A.W. Cluff and P.J. Cluff)
Government of Canada 2022 “Meetings of Parliament, 1841-1866 National Historic Event” https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_nhs_eng.aspx?id=1637
Government of Canada 2019 “Report on Needs of Seniors” https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/canada/employment-social-development/corporate/seniors/forum/report-seniors-housing-needs/report-seniors-housing-needs-EN.pdf
CBC News 2022 “How intergenerational housing can help solve Toronto’s housing crisis — and allow seniors to age in place” https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1986900547564
CTV News 2022 “Roommates, multi-generational homes rising amid increasing costs, immigration: census” https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/roommates-multi-generational-homes-rising-amid-increasing-costs-immigration-census-1.5985740
Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site 2022 “Social History 1760-1830” https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/exploration/social-history-1760-1830.php
Snell, James G. 1993 “The Newfoundland Old Age Pension Programme, 1911-1949” Acadiensis, 23(1), 86–109. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30303471
Statisics Canada 2022 “Older Adults and Population Aging Statistics” https://www.statcan.gc.ca/en/subjects-start/older_adults_and_population_aging
The Canadian Encyclopedia 2022 “Aging” https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aging