The Canadian population is aging rapidly. In the next decade, the proportion of our population aged 65 and older will exceed twenty percent. The number of adults over 85 will quadruple, and the number of centenarians will triple.
It’s clear that we’re all living longer and if many continue to retire around the age of 65, there can be decades of post-retirement living. It’s a new “fourth stage” of life that we have not designed for with regards to our institutions, services, products, policies, or models of healthcare.
Challenges to Aging Well in the 21st Century
In order for older adults to age well—which I believe means to age on their terms—a few fundamental, systemic challenges will need to be cracked:
Sustainability of our health systems
Patients aged 65 and older account for nearly half of Canada’s healthcare resources. We simply will not be able to match supply of healthcare resources to demand.
There will be increased numbers of people suffering from some form of dementia, a condition which has devastating consequences for the individual and their families.
Some 70 percent of older adults will need assistance to care for themselves at some point. This creates a huge burden on family caregivers. Further, we are not in any position to train and hire the needed formal health and social care workforce to support the complex physical and social needs of the elderly.
Housing and long-term care models
Almost all—93 percent—of aging adults live at home and prefer to live in place. Yet, we have a dominantly institutional model of relocating our seniors to hospitals and nursing homes when they inevitably become too frail. We simply will not be able to build enough buildings or beds to absorb the demand—and few seniors want to be in these facilities anyway. Further, at the end of life, some 75 percent of Canadians prefer to die at home, but only 15 percent actually do. The majority die in hospitals, spending their final days on busy hospital wards, occupying a hospital bed that could be used by someone with an acute illness, which is what hospitals were actually built for.
Loneliness and isolation
There is already a near epidemic of older adult loneliness. In Canada, people aged 80 and older report feeling lonely up to 80 percent of the time. Many seniors identify the TV as their main company. Older adult loneliness is linked to many illnesses including depression, high blood pressure, sleep disturbances, and worsening dementia. Conversely, higher levels of social engagement lead to less illness and lower mortality rates.
Labour force and tax base
As the ratio of retirees to workers grows, the available tax base to fund the living, health, and social care needs of older adults will shrink.
The Opportunity: Help Canadians Age on Their Terms
We know what Canadians want in their later years. They want to retain their independence, remain in their own homes, stay connected to community, friends, and family, retain their mobility, and have security in the form of income, housing, food, and physical safety.
In essence, they want to age with vitality, health, agency, and dignity. Not loneliness, sickness, pain and dementia.
We also know that there are new opportunities that come along with an aging population, including new labour force opportunities. For example, many elderly workers are becoming senior-preneurs or elder-preneurs. They also provide the highest number of volunteer hours, unlocking a new pool of resources for society to access.
The new “silver” economy (also called the “longevity economy”) tracks the aging marketplace and sees older consumers with a global spending power that will reach $15 trillion by 2020. Entirely new categories of products, services, and experiences are opening up that are nothing like what yesterday’s “senior” market wanted. They range from gerontechnologies to age well in place, to the “wellderly” market, which focuses on healthy aging with various lifestyle products, financial services products, to new housing and community designs.
Tackling these wicked problems and unlocking the massive opportunities will require a new set of problem-solvers, tools, and capabilities, many of which have yet to be developed or tapped at a meaningful extent in Canadian industry, government, or civil society. There is a huge opportunity here for meaningful innovation that will impact millions of Canadians.