Although the terms are often taken for granted, there is no consensus definition of who may be considered “old” or “senior”, particularly given the diversity of individual life paths and expanding life expectancy. Some have adopted a relative, contextual approach to a definition, which addresses the important role of attitudes, social expectations and specific context in the experience of aging. Another common approach, often adopted for its simplicity and practicality, is to select a specific age as a marker. The most commonly used age is 65, since this age is frequently used as a criterion for accessing various social programs.
Whatever definition one ultimately adopts, it is essential to recognize that there is great diversity among older adults. The experience of aging will differ significantly depending on one’s health, gender, income and education level, ethnicity or place of origin, place of residence and multiple other factors.
To begin with, the category of “older adult” is itself very broad. The perspectives, experiences and needs of a 63 year-old will likely differ significantly from those of a 90 year-old. Recognizing this, older persons are often divided into three broad categories reflecting an intersection of age and health: the “young old”, who are often healthy and reasonably affluent; the “middle old”, who may be beginning to develop health problems and have less money and resources; and the “frail old”, who are very elderly and have unique needs.
Life expectancy differs between the sexes: although these differences are beginning to narrow, it remains the case today that most older adults are female, and that the predominance of women increases as age increases. Although a cohort of older women may as individuals be characterized as “well-off” economically, the general picture is that low-income is more prevalent among older women than among older men, due to longer life expectancy, lower participation in the paid labour force, and lower wages in paid employment when of working age (increasing the likelihood that a given individual will have no pension or an inadequate pension or inadequate income from other forms of savings). This is particularly true for unattached older women.
A significant portion of the population over age 65 is made up of immigrants. In 2001, 28.6 per cent of the population aged 65-75 was born outside of Canada, compared to 21.3 per cent of the population aged 25-54. A substantial majority of these immigrant seniors arrived in Canada when they were young, and almost one-third of them live in Toronto. When looking at the small group of older adults who immigrated to Canada relatively recently, they are much less likely to speak either English or French, are predominantly “members of visible minorities” (as defined by the federal Employment Equity Act), tend to be in poorer health, and are more likely to require assistance with the activities of daily living. The share of the older adult population made up of “members of visible minorities” is relatively small (7.2 per cent in 2001), but growing. These numbers point to the importance of taking into account language and culture, as well as the unique experiences of newcomers and racialized Canadians, in considering the experience of aging.
Because Canada’s Aboriginal population is relatively young, older Aboriginal persons make up only one per cent of Canada’s population. Members of this group are more likely than younger Aboriginal persons to live on a reserve, although the majority of older Aboriginal persons live in urban centres. Older Aboriginal persons have significantly lower life expectancies than non-Aboriginal persons, as well as lower income levels, and they report poorer levels of health.
Over the last 30 years, the proportion of older adults who are low income has declined markedly, due largely to the maturation of the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan. Canada now has one of the lowest rates of low income for older persons among industrialized countries, with 6.8 per cent of older adults falling below the Low Income Cutoff after taxes. However, as noted above, rates of low-income may be considerably higher for particular groups of older adults, such as women and Aboriginal persons. Virtually all older adults receive at least some of their income from government transfers, such as CPP/QPP, Old Age Security, or the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and in 1999, these government transfers made up the majority of the income of two-thirds of senior families. As a result, the requirements, benefits and administration of these programs have an overwhelming impact on the wellbeing of older persons. Private pension plans make up the major source of income for about 20 per cent of older persons. However, as private pension plan coverage of the paid labour force is declining, the importance of private pension plans to the income of older persons is likely to decrease.
An important trend among older persons is an increased tendency towards labour force participation. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a trend towards increased labour force participation among persons over the age of 65 for both men and women. In 2004, approximately one-quarter of men aged 65 to 69 were in the labour force; the figure for women of the same age was 11 per cent. Higher levels of education are associated with an increased likelihood of continued labour force participation after age 65.
While aging is often associated with a decline in general health and the onset of activity limitations, a significant proportion of older adults (37 per cent) report themselves to be in good or excellent health. However, older adults are more vulnerable to a range of chronic conditions, including arthritis, high blood pressure, vision-related problems, diabetes and dementia. Attention must also be paid to the unique experiences of persons who have disabilities as they age.
Based on 2003 data, it appears that until age 75, almost all older persons are able to carry on the activities of daily living without assistance. After age 75, one in ten of those living in a private household required some assistance with personal care, and one-quarter required some assistance with housework. Activity limitations tend to increase with age, with 47 per cent of persons aged 85 and older experiencing some form of mobility limitation. Most older persons are in good mental health: levels of psychological distress tend to decline with age, although they begin to increase again after age 75.
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