Groups like the Bowser Seniors Housing Society are trying to raise money to build facilities so local seniors can age in place.

THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: Seniors struggling to survive in Parksville Qualicum Beach

Housing, financial challenges have elderly people choosing food or medication

Seniors in Parksville Qualicum Beach are couch surfing, halving meals to make food last and are forced to choose between medication or housing, say local affordable housing advocates.

Their comments come in response to the release last week of Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie’s report, “Seniors Housing in B.C., Affordable, Appropriate, Available.”

Dawn Barry, the seniors’ co-ordinator for the Society of Organized Services (SOS), says this region faces a chronic shortage of affordable, appropriate and available housing choices. There are seniors who are making a choice between shelter costs, food costs, and medication, she says, and some have even fasted several days per month to afford the latest round of hydro increases.

Barry says seniors here are unable to buy glasses, hearing aids and have dental work done. If you can’t see, hear or chew, you’re likely not going to go out to visit any friends and this also leads to health problems, she says.

“So they stay at home, are now isolated, and their health declines at an alarming rate,” says Barry. “This is so penny-wise, pound-foolish — it costs so much more to house someone in a care facility, than to give a little more medical help.”

SOS Emergency Assistance Program co-ordinator Sarah Faulhafer says she is seeing more and more seniors access her program for food after they used money to buy long-overdue glasses or dental work.

“Incomes that seniors receive definitely do not reflect a realistic cost of living,” says Faulhafer. “I also recognize how hard it is to ask for help, especially for seniors and that often, they will go without the basic essentials to make ends meet, which may further isolate them. It is hard to get out and socialize or participate in your community if you can’t afford your glasses, medications, dental care or a proper meal.”

Among the 18 recommendations in her report, Seniors Advocate Mackenzie calls on the province to increase subsidies available through the Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) program and to develop a strategy for creating more housing in rural B.C.

“I am very concerned that some seniors are going without some of the basics in order to meet their rent obligations,” Mackenzie says. “There are many health costs, such as dental care and hearing aids, that are not covered. This can have a significant impact on the health and well-being of seniors.”

For the 80 per cent of seniors who are homeowners, Mackenzie has recommended a new initiative, a “Homeowner Expense Deferral Account” program that would give low-income seniors the ability to defer paying housing costs such as hydro, home insurance, and major repairs and maintenance. The province would pay these expenses on behalf of the senior and then collect the money back when the house is sold.

“A new roof or the need to fix a dilapidated deck may be a cost that forces a senior out of a house they have loved for decades,” Mackenzie says. “Living in a house that is worth $500,000 or even a million dollars does not mean much if you’re living alone on $24,000 a year or less, which is the median income for seniors in B.C., and you can’t find the cash to pay the bills. This kind of program would help seniors afford to live independently for as long as possible.”

Barry says finances are a huge problem for many of the seniors she sees in the Parksville Qualicum Beach region. She says an increase in SAFER is long overdue and she says she believes Mackenzie’s Homeowner Expense Deferral Account could be a “life saver.”

“It is very common for people to be house rich and cash poor, so that they simply cannot afford home repairs,” says Barry. “This decreases the value of their house, so that when it comes to a point of being unable to live there, the re-sale value is hugely diminished.”

Barry also says an increase to the money supplied through the SAFER program might get some local seniors away from a practise traditionally the domain of much younger people.

“There are seniors who would be homeless, but for the kindness of friends who offer them a bed,” says Barry. “This is no different than couch surfing in that they are at the mercy of whomever has taken them in, and could be thrown out at any time.”

Carol Cannon is a director with the Bowser Seniors Housing Society, a group that has raised $40,000 in the last two years in an effort to build and operate non-profit affordable housing exclusively for seniors.  “We need to keep our seniors in our community, retain a healthy demographic balance and not lose the accumulated knowledge, wisdom, and character that they instill,” says Cannon.

The society wants to build 10 units of independent-supportive housing, a suite for a resident staff person and two guest suites, all within walking distance of Bowser’s village core. Cannon says the society will need about $2 million to reach that goal so the debt remains low and does not overtly burden the residents’ cost of accommodation.

“The current provincial and federal funding context offers little opportunity for grant assistance for major capital costs,” says Cannon.

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake responded to Mackenzie’s report the same day it was released.

“It is a thorough examination of the wide spectrum of housing for seniors as they age and how we can  improve care and support for our growing aging population,” said Lake. “”We agree with many of the general findings of this report and will act on the majority of recommendations that pertain to the Ministry of Health. Some of the recommendations have wide-reaching implications for the health authorities, for the ministry and for the seniors’ housing sector, and will need further analysis before we can commit to an approach.”

To read the seniors’ advocate’s full report, visit www.seniorsadvocatebc.ca. For more information about the Bowser Seniors Housing Society, visit http://bowser-seniors-housing-society.org.

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