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Interview: Canada’s Aging Population: Mark of Success Or Serious Threat?


dr. gloria gutman

In 2000, Dr. Gloria Gutman and the late Dr. Ellen Gee co-edited The Overselling of Population Aging: Apocalyptic Demography, Intergenerational Challenges, and Social Policy (Oxford University Press). The publication sparked wide interest both in Canada and abroad.

Dr. Gutman is widely known in the field of gerontology as an educator, researcher and consultant. She developed and directed the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University from 1982-2005. Currently, she is professor in the Gerontology Department and Director of the Dr. Tong Louie Living Laboratory.

I reached Dr. Gutman in her office at Simon Fraser University.

Ruth Dempsey: How is your approach to population study different from that taken by David Foot, the author of Boom, Bust, and Echo?

Gloria Gutman: Foot is a demographer, who has done an excellent job in drawing attention to and popularizing population trends analysis. Our approach has been more academic and measured. We have tried to understand why so many policy makers, and the general public, have been so quick to grab onto a "doom and gloom" scenario.

RD: But, you agree population aging carries specific challenges, right?

GG: Sure there are challenges. The good news is that more and more people are living to be old. The bad news is that one’s chances of suffering from a dementing illness go up dramatically after age 85. While we no longer die from infectious disease at the rate we used to, the trade-off is more chronic disease.

We also must remember that population aging occurs because of two simultaneous trends: increased longevity and decreased fertility.

There is going to be a tremendous shortage of young people to fill jobs. Alberta is already feeling the pinch! Immigration is not the answer. We cannot stem the tide of population aging that way. We can’t bring in enough people annually to do so. And, in any event, immigrants age also, adding to the numbers of older persons.

The challenges are to find ways to make workers – young and old – more productive. A 0.5 per cent increase in productivity, it has been estimated, could enable us to afford all our favorite social programs and then some.

We also need to take more responsibility for our personal health and well-being. Heredity plays about a 25 per cent role in longevity. Environment and lifestyle factors about 50 per cent. What about the other 25 per cent you ask? That’s the luck of the draw. But we can do a lot about the 50 per cent that is due to environment and lifestyle. A lot less super-sizing and junk food consumption and a lot more exercise and healthy living can go a long way.

RD: In The Overselling of Population Aging, Michael Prince called for a realistic demography, noting that "for many Canadians, there is a mismatch between the rosy images of retirement portrayed in the advertisements and their everyday lives." Can you comment please?

GG: Retirement is great if you are bored with your job, have lots of other things you would rather be doing, and have the money and health as well as good companions to do them with. Not everyone who retires, however, has all of the above.

For example, while poverty rates in Canada have come down a lot from where they were in 1980, when the numbers are disaggregated by age, sex and martial status we find that many unattached women age 65 and over, almost 50 per cent, are at or below the poverty line.

RD: Are there things Canada can learn from other countries?

GG: Yes. For starters, that an increase in the proportion of older persons is not a recipe for intergenerational warfare. There are a number of countries now that have proportions aged 65+ close to the 18 to 20 per cent mark (we are currently at 13 per cent) and there have been no major rebellions.

Removal of mandatory retirement provides another lesson. The United States and Australia did away with it some years ago. Neither had an economic meltdown as a result!

We also can learn some lessons about privatization of health care. There is no question that the American system is much more costly than the Canadian system, and large numbers of their population have no health insurance. This has major implications for the prevention of disease and disability in old age.

The trend to privatization of long term care in the U.K. under the Thatcher government is another example of a policy that has been detrimental to the elderly.

RD: Older people are frequently assumed to be non-productive and costly members of the community. Yet older Canadians today "are contributing to and participating in society in wider and more active ways," according to the National Advisory Council on Aging. Why the disconnect?

GG: I think families may take things for granted with respect to their parents. More and more adult children are returning home after a marriage breakdown or if they lose their job and expect mom and dad to help them out.

RD: The idea of reciprocity – the notion that in providing assistance to an older person, my life may be enriched, in turn – seems missing from the conversation. Why is this?

GG: People provide assistance for a variety of reasons – for some it is an act of choice and joy, for others it occurs because of feelings of obligation or guilt of pressure from relatives. Under the latter condition, the enrichment aspect is less likely to be experienced.

RD: There are also those who suggest population aging may act as an impetus for change – transforming health care, reinventing retirement and revolutionizing the workplace. Can you please comment?

GG: What you say is absolutely true. Population aging presents an unparalleled opportunity for creativity in the three areas you mention.

New therapies could be developed – pharmaceutical and other that could conquer some of the scourges of old age. More emphasis on prevention could reduce or delay the appearance of age-related diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis and Alzheimer Disease.

RD: In closing, can you please share with us your hopes for the years ahead?

GG: I hope that the governments of the world, including our own, which signed the United Nations Political Declaration and endorsed the 2002 Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, will step up to the plate and implement many of the recommendations.

These documents identify key problems facing older persons and offer strategies for dealing with them. In some cases legislation may be needed, for example, to make it clear to perpetrators that elder abuse will not be condoned. Money needs to be tied to such legislation however, so that perpetrators can be prosecuted and services put in place to help victims and try to prevent new cases.