In last Tuesday’s throne speech, the B.C. government promised legislation to create an official advocate for senior citizens. It’s expected the bill will be introduced shortly, perhaps in the next two or three weeks.
There are plenty of reasons to welcome such an office, but there are also important precautions that should be taken.
The reasons are easy to enumerate. By 2035, a quarter of the B.C population will be 65 and older. It makes sense that a group this large should have a public voice.
If, as assumed, the new seniors’ advocate is an independent officer of the legislature, like the representative for children and youth or the auditor general, that voice will certainly be heard.
And there is plenty to speak out about. Even as our society ages, most of its decision-makers — in government, the professions and business — are at the more youthful end of the life scale. They see things from a different, and sometimes unsympathetic, perspective.
Perhaps the clearest evidence is the get-tough approach to older drivers that provinces such as B.C. have introduced. Rather than find innovative ways to help elderly motorists stay on the road, the preference is to disqualify them as age sets in. Imagine telling the physically handicapped to stay indoors because their wheelchairs are an inconvenience.
Other examples abound. Mature workers are routinely passed over for promotion because of age. Studies show that physicians often dismiss complaints from senior citizens that would be taken seriously in younger patients. Insurance policies and bank loans can be difficult to negotiate in retirement.
Indeed, the most striking aspect of age discrimination is its sheer prevalence. Sixty per cent of elderly Canadians say they have been treated unfairly, and a sizable number of younger people admit doing just that.
So the need for a seniors’ advocate certainly exists. But how should the office be structured?
Let’s start by choosing the right model. It would be a mistake for the new advocate to hang out a shingle and offer to resolve personal complaints.
A mandate like that promises too much. There will never be enough residential beds or home-care services to meet every possible need.
Just as important, most senior citizens are quite capable of speaking for themselves. What they require is someone with sufficient authority to push back against discriminatory policies and mired-in-the-past attitudes. Here also, some caution is warranted.
We already have a provincial minister responsible for seniors — Ralph Sultan from West Vancouver-Capilano. Isn’t this his bailiwick?
And what about backbenchers and opposition MLAs? What do we pay these people for, if not to hold government ministries to account?
A common complaint these days is that members of the legislature have become toothless figureheads. There should be no suggestion that the new advocate is doing their job for them.
Nonetheless, age discrimination runs deep. Nor is it confined to government.
What we need is a high-powered advocate with legal training who can challenge “the system” at its roots. That means examining workplace regulations, professional patterns of practice, government operating procedures — and nailing discrimination where it exists.
The job is as much educational as corrective. Canadians are not a wilfully biased people. We do genuinely believe in equality.
But in this one area — the rights and needs of the elderly — we seem stuck in the 1950s. It should be the task of the new seniors’ advocate to argue persuasively that this time warp must not go on.
And one last thought. The arena for this debate must be the broadest possible. Politicians, doctors or business leaders don’t learn their ageism at work. Like the rest of us, they learn it in the broader community.
We all have some adjustments to make.
© Copyright 2013