By John Muscedere and John Puxty
COVID-19 has framed older Canadians as frail and vulnerable during the pandemic – for good reason. The pandemic has hit older adults particularly hard, accounting for the majority of those suffering from serious illness and death. Fear of COVID-19 contagion continues to impact seniors far more than most other Canadians, forcing them into stricter lockdown measures for their own health and safety.
What’s forgotten in the focus on keeping seniors safe is that older adults aren’t solely vulnerable and reliant but contribute greatly to our economy and to our society. Canada’s older adults should not only be seen as victims of COVID-19, but also as a resource to help society recover from it.
Canada’s older adults are living longer now than ever before. The oldest Baby Boomers are turning 75 this year and are more committed than any other generation in the past to aging well, aging in-place and keeping healthy and active as long as they can. This is shown in the statistics of seniors who are still actively working.
The employment rate of seniors in the Canadian labour force has more than doubled since 2000. In 2015, one in five Canadians aged 65 and older, or nearly 1.1 million seniors, reported working during the year. In 2018, Stats Canada reported that 28.4 per cent of Canadians 60 and older who reported working as their major activity were self-employed.
More seniors now hold post-secondary degrees than in the past and this seems to keep them working longer. Older Canadians with at least a bachelor’s degree were almost two times more likely to continue working after the age of 65 than those with a high school diploma.
It’s important to note, however, that sometimes seniors are still in the workforce because they cannot afford to retire and not because they choose to continue to work. Employment income was the main source of income for 43.8 per cent of seniors who worked in 2015. Those without private pensions — which have declined over the past 30 years – are 1.5 times more likely to continue working than those seniors with private pensions.
It’s not just through employment – and the taxes they continue to pay while they work – that seniors help grow the economy. Seniors are also committed to giving back and building their communities.
Older Canadians are committed volunteers. They provide a wealth of knowledge, experience and skills that can be of great benefit to their communities. Seniors are responsible for one in five volunteer hours given to non-profits and charities. Volunteer Canada values a volunteer hour at $27, which means seniors are providing upwards of $10.9 billion of unpaid work into our economy annually.
Seniors are not only generous with their time but also with their money. In 2017, Canadian seniors provided 42 per cent of all donations to charities, totaling over $4 billion. This is close to half of all charitable donations in Canada.
Almost one-quarter of Canadian seniors aged 65 years and older are also caregivers. In 2018, 1.5 million of the 7.8 million Canadian caregivers were aged 65 years and older.
During the pandemic, seniors have stepped up to support communities through food bank drives, delivering groceries, driving others to appointments, making sure neighbours aren’t isolated, and volunteering for charities to support Canada’s most vulnerable, regardless of their age. Also, some seniors, such as doctors and nurses, have come out retirement to help out.
All of this generosity and employment activity doesn’t just have benefits for our economy and society. By keeping active and engaged through paid or charitable work, research shows seniors receive benefits to their own health and well-being.
A one-sided view of older Canadians as frail and vulnerable does not describe the vast majority of Canada’s 6.8 million seniors. They have a lifetime of experience to contribute and many are simply not done yet.
Canada needs to tap into their energy and expertise as we face some of the greatest challenges in many generations due to COVID-19 and the resulting economic damage it has caused.
John Muscedere is CEO of the Canadian Frailty Network and a Professor in the School of Medicine at Queen’s University.
John Puxty is the Director of the Centre for Studies in Aging and Health at Providence Care and an Associate Professor in the School of Medicine at Queen’s University.