Aging society our greatest challenge

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No issue better defines our society — both in terms of our capacity for compassion and for common sense — than our treatment of the elderly.

The scary thing is that as our society ages — particularly with the giant baby boomer generation heading into its twilight years — we’re not ready for it.

The problem isn’t a lack of government spending — spending on health care alone now eats up almost 50% of provincial budgets and continues to rise well above the rate of inflation.

The problem is that the money is often spent in the wrong places, or wasted, as in Ontario’s notorious billion-dollar eHealth and Ornge air ambulance scandals.

In Canada, we’ve become a lot better at warehousing and forgetting about the elderly than at supporting and caring for them at home, far less expensively and with a far better quality of life.

For those who do require institutional care, we aren’t providing the right facilities.

Acute-care hospitals, intended for short stays to treat immediate health problems, have been filled for decades with elderly patients who require long-term chronic care, but who have nowhere else to go because of the shortage of appropriate chronic care beds.

And when all the beds in an acute care hospital are occupied, many by chronic care patients, the result is backed-up emergency rooms, with patients, often elderly, waiting for hours on stretchers, just to be seen.

We overprescribe drugs to the elderly — at enormous cost — often making them sicker, not better.

Worst of all, we don’t care about the elderly enough.

As any health care professional will tell you, the single most important thing that determines the quality of care a senior citizen receives — at home or in an institutional setting — is whether they have family and friends who visit, love and support them, or whether they’ve been abandoned.

Too many have been abandoned, by their families and society itself.

That’s not only cruel, it’s disastrous as a public policy.

It’s disastrous because we will all grow old and soon, the demographers warn us, the aging of the giant baby boomer generation will put unprecedented pressures on our already overburdened health care system.

In one sense, we’re lucky, because, as the demographers also tell us, we still have some time to set things right, before the impact of an aging society fully impacts on our health care system.

But time is running out, and if our progress in addressing this issue is as slow as it has been for the past few decades, then we’re going to be overwhelmed by it in a few short years.

Which is why we’re calling attention to this national crisis in the Sun.

Because in order to fix a problem, you first have to acknowledge that a problem exists, and be open to new ideas on how to address it.