Factors Contributing to Poverty and Vulnerability among Senior Women
3 April 2019
By Krista James
In December 2018 the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women began a study of challenges facing senior women, with a focus on poverty and vulnerability. The Committee invited members of the public to submit two-page written briefs identifying concerns related to transportation, access to health services and medication, the cost of home and health services, affordable housing, access to justice, and widowhood.
Throughout the last few months, the Committee has heard from witnesses from across the country. The list of witnesses and their briefs can be found on the Committee’s webpage. You can also watch live proceedings of the Committee.
On April 2, 2019, I appeared before the Committee. My presentation is summarized in this blog post.
From 2011 to 2017 the CCEL heard from over 500 women through our Older Women’s Dialogue Project. This work was funded over the years by various organizations, including the Government of Canada. We started this project because we had noticed that while gender has a significant impact on life experience, research and policy analysis seemed to render older women invisible. Feminist work tends to focus on girls and women of child-bearing age. Aging policy tends to be gender-neutral, and so not address the unique challenges senior women face. The Older Women’s Dialogue Project was developed to address this gap in research. We consulted with older women to learn about barriers to their well-being.
The CCEL collaborated with West Coast LEAF to hold a total of 35 consultation events with older women. We collaborated with local agencies, holding events in ten different languages, as well as American Sign Language. We allowed women to self-identify as “older”, and so events included women in their 50s to 90s. We held five consultation events specifically with Indigenous older women.
We worked with a committee of older women to develop law and policy recommendations to take action on the issues women had identified. Our findings and recommendations are summarized in two reports:
- We Are Not all the Same: Key Law, Policy and Practice Strategies for Improving the Lives of Older Women in the Lower Mainland (2017)
- Your Words are Worth Something: Identifying Barriers to the Well Being of Older Women (2013)
Most of the recommendations discussed in my presentation can be found in one of the above reports. A few recommendations flow from subsequent work with older women.
An overarching finding of the Older Women’s Dialogue Project is that the experience of poverty and vulnerability for senior women is significantly impacted by many aspects of identity—not only gender. Women with disabilities, Indigenous women, ethno-cultural minority and immigrant women, and LGBTQ women experience unique challenges as they age. Policy responses thus must be tailored to address the experiences of older women in all their diversity. Generic policies will fail to support the most vulnerable women in Canada.
In my presentation to the Committee I focused on four thematic areas:
- Preventing and addressing poverty;
- Improving access to health care;
- Supporting survivors of violence and abuse; and
- Enhancing access to justice.
- Preventing Poverty amongst Senior Women
Poverty and fear of poverty was an urgent issue identified by senior women at every single consultation event we held. Certainly catastrophic events—such divorce, injury and job loss—can negatively impact income security in old age. However, for senior women, poverty is often a function of events occurring across their lives, particularly the choices women must make to prioritize unpaid family caregiving over paid labour. Current policy measures do not adequately address the reality that women often earn a lot less than their male counterparts, and so have fewer savings in old age. Recent changes to the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) are not adequate to lift the most vulnerable senior women out of poverty.
For many senior women retirement is a misleading term. They may have retired from paid employment, but unpaid caregiving often continues. For many of them, their days are filled with physically and emotionally demanding care for spouses, adult children with disabilities, grandchildren, and others. This caregiving labour is often a treasured part of older women’s lives; however, they require greater financial support to fulfil these critical roles in our communities.
Our 2017 report includes a number of recommendation related to income security. We recommended the Government of Canada:
- Enhance the Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement programs to ensure that senior women are not living in poverty.
- Amend the Canada Pension Plan to include a drop-out provision parallel to the Child-Rearing Provision that would be applicable to all years of full-time family caregiving.
- Develop programs for providing better financial, housing and other support to senior women who are the primary caregivers of under-age children, particularly Indigenous women.
- Supporting Senior Women Survivors of Violence and Abuse
We learned that violence has a significant impact on aging. Some women experience abuse in old age; others experience violence as children or younger women that continues to impact their quality of life. In particular, historic trauma has had an enduring impact on the lives of Indigenous older women. Keeping their children and youth safe from violence is of utmost importance to them.
Through consultation with service providers who work with senior women who have experienced violence we have learned that senior women are particularly reluctant stay at a transition house. Maintaining connection to their long-time community is very important to them. Leaving home often means transitioning to long-term care because transition houses are not set up to address their complex health needs. Also, they value family relationships tremendously, sometimes over their own safety. Senior women will sometimes stay in dangerous situations to make sure their loved ones are well cared for—even their abusers. Older women are often being harmed by people they love who are dependent on them for care.
Current policy measures increase risk for immigrant women experiencing abuse. Pension policy excludes many senior immigrant women from access to Old Age Security and the GIS. Immigrant women stay in dangerous situations because 10-20 year agreements between their sponsoring family members and the Government of Canada prevent them from accessing many publicly funded services, thereby tying them to family members who hurt them.
To address these concerns, we have recommended the Government of Canada and the provincial and territorial governments:
- Fund initiatives to enable senior Indigenous women, women Elders and their communities to develop locally-based and culturally appropriate programming to support healing within their communities.
- Enhance support for organizations that assist senior women experiencing or fleeing abuse—including transition houses, safe houses, seniors-serving agencies and immigrant-serving agencies—particularly to develop or enhance outreach so vulnerable senior women do not have to leave their homes in order to access support.
- Enhance funding to transition and safe houses across Canada to enable them to implement practices identified in the report Promising Practices across Canada for Housing Women who are Older and Fleeing Abuse in order to enhance service accessibility and appropriateness for senior women.
- Review Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement eligibility criteria respecting access for senior immigrant women who otherwise have no financial support.
- Improving Access to Health Care
Senior women require better access to health services and home care. Health care delivery is fragmented across providers, including governments, non-profits, and businesses. Accessing care is challenging, particularly for women with complex care needs and who face language barriers. The fee for service model discriminates against senior women, who often need to discuss more than one issue when they see a health care professional but are limited to seven-minute appointments per day. Recent home support cuts disproportionately impact senior women, who tend to outlive their male partners and do much of the cooking and house-keeping.
We have recommended that governments:
- Fund patient advocate and navigator programs to provide support and assistance to senior women who experience barriers to receiving timely and appropriate health care.
- Enhance funding for programs aimed at providing house-keeping assistance, such as meal preparation, laundry and housework, to senior women requiring support.
- Explore models of health care delivery that better serve women with complex health circumstances, such as Community Health Centres that bring together primary care physicians and allied health professionals.
- Enhancing Access to Justice
Senior women find it difficult to access legal representation and legal advice. Most cannot afford the legal services they need. Many do not know how to find a lawyer when they need help. Much of the promotion work regarding free legal services does not seem to reach senior women.
Senior women who have survived violence told us the legal system can be harmful and re-traumatizing. Lawyers don’t provide the assistance they require; judges may not support them to tell their stories in court; justice professionals do not help to keep them safe. We worked with a group of immigrant older women to develop an eight-minute documentary video to illustrate this dynamic. You can watch No Voice from our website.
The following recommendations related to access to justice would provide better support to senior women:
- Provide sustainable funding for programs that provide legal representation to grandmothers who are the primary caregivers of children, including in-house staff lawyer positions within key community agencies.
- Identify practical solutions to barriers to access to justice facing older women in BC, with particular attention to outreach strategies that have proven effective in reaching older women.
- Increase the number of hours of funded legal representation in instances where an older woman who qualifies for legal aid will require language interpretation in order to communicate with her lawyer.
- Provide individuals who qualify for free legal advice appointments with a one-hour appointment, as opposed to the standard 30-minute appointment, where language interpretation is required.
- Ensure justice sector stakeholders, including lawyers, judges, and law students, develop a better understanding of the dynamics of trauma.
- Enhance funding for advocacy programs that allow senior women to access support that they would not get from a legal aid lawyer. Advocates can provide holistic emotional and practical assistance that allows women to make better use of their limited time with legal counsel.
In 2012 I appeared before the Committee as part of their study on abuse of older women. The Committee report on Abuse of Older Women (Report no. 3) has been archived on the Parliament of Canada website. The Committee expects to release its report on senior women and poverty before summer 2019.