Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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World’s Seniors Seek Health, Longevity

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday,  February 26 / 24

Zack Gross

Let’s face it – I am a senior!  People tell me that I’m still looking good, but I’m chastened by former CBC host Ralph Benmergui’s comment in his recent book about his own aging struggles that people were impressed by him because they had thought he had died!

As one enters those senior years, there are lots of reminders of how long we’ve been around.  We acquire heart troubles, we develop cancer, we go for cataract surgeries, we get COVID and take a long time to recover.  I’ve experienced all of those.  My mother’s favourite saying – she lived into her 80s – was “old age is no pleasure.”

On the positive side, our children present us with their spouses and then our grandchildren.  We get to retire or at least cut back on our work time.  We might get to travel.  We reconnect with old, lifelong friends.  Occasionally, I join a group of childhood buddies for a good visit but we end up comparing what pills we are on or what procedures we have had.

In the workforce, being “older” should mean that one brings knowledge and experience to the job.  However, it’s not easy for a person over 50 to get hired.  Employers might think that you are set in your ways and will not take direction.  Or they think you are slowing down or that they can find someone younger and cheaper.

As people in most countries around the world live longer lives, they want or need to work longer because their personal finances are not strong enough to contend with housing, food and transportation prices.  Professor Emeritus (see, he’s retired too!) Gary S. Cross recently wrote the book Free Time: The History of an Elusive Ideal, and was interviewed on CBC Radio’s The Current.  From his perspective as an American, he says that seniors need to keep working in order to meet their consumer needs and wants, but also because the state doesn’t take good enough care of them.  Europe and Canada are better at that but not ideal.

Over my lifetime, starting in the 1950s, life expectancy in the world has risen from the mid-40s to the mid-70s.  That is impressive.  When my Dad turned 50, we thought he was old.  Now, when a person turns 75, we might think that way.  But this is a global statistic, and those at the top of the scale are far, far ahead of those toward the bottom.  It is also a class statistic.  The social determinants of health – your finances, your diet, how safe and secure your life is, your housing and so on - will determine what you can expect in life.  As well, women tend to live a few years longer than men.

According to Worldometers, people in Hong Kong, Macao, Japan, Switzerland and Singapore hold the top five positions in longevity, with women living 86 to 89 years, and men living 82 or 83 years.  Canada sits at nineteenth, with women living to 85 and men to 81.  The United Kingdom is number 30 with 84 and 81, and the United States is actually at number 47 out of 201, with ages 82 and 77. 

Toward the bottom half of the list and at the very bottom are countries like Russia at number 100, Tanzania in East Africa at 152, Kenya at 173 and Chad at 201.  These final countries face serious health, hunger and poverty issues with adults struggling to live into their 60s or even their 50s.  As an older visitor to East African countries in my job in development assistance, I found that a large measure of respect was given to elders as few people lived the long lives we have here.

A major story hit the news the other day as seniors and health care services in Canada announced that much preparation and funding was needed to deal with the coming boom of elderly people’s needs, such as home care.  CBS News recently ran a story looking at the best countries for care of seniors, with northern European countries featured as the top examples.  Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Germany boast of holding the first four positions but Canada ranks fifth.  These rankings are based on poverty rates, pension sizes, employment percentages and health care programs.  Of course, no poor country makes this list.  But there is yet more to do, in the estimation of many Canadians, and the coming new federal pharmacare program may add to Canada’s ranking.

It was once a big deal to reach the age of 80.  Now it seems to be just about the average.  Obituaries include many folks who have lived to 100 or more.  The challenge for society is to see seniors, retired and the elderly as a resource, to offer them respect and dignity, and to create programs to reward them with care in their final years.

Zack Gross is Board Chair of
The Marquis Project, a Brandon-based international development organization, and co-author of the new book The Fair Trade Handbook: Building a Better World, Together.

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