By Laura Keil
At a recent seniors fair in Valemount, BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie had strong words about the difference in support available to rural seniors compared to their urban counterparts.
Mackenzie has been BC’s Seniors Advocate—a non-partisan advocacy role—for eight years, and her office publishes reports on the state of seniors in the province every year.
She says there is a repository of resourcefulness and ingenuity that exists in rural British Columbia, which can often mask inequities.
“The challenge for governments is that rural people are so resilient, and have done so much for themselves over the years, that there’s a lack of understanding that help is needed,” she said.
“The things we complain about not having in the city, the people in rural BC can only dream of. They’re still wanting the things that we already take for granted in the city.”
She gave the example of a city-dweller complaining their mom is in a care home a 20-minute drive away.
“This person lives in an environment where they’re expecting everything to be within a 10-minute walk. And then you think about the person in Castlegar whose mom is in a care home in Cranbrook because the map says it’s Interior Health and it’s a 2.5 hour drive over a big mountain.”
“You want to stay in Valemount; you don’t want your family and your friends to drive three hours to visit you in Prince George.”
She said there’s a lot the Province can do to help people stay in their home communities as they age, rather than forcing them to make the difficult decision to leave.
But the rural-urban imbalance is worse than 20 or 25 years ago, she said, with everything from home support to suitable housing.
“I don’t know exactly why that is. Is it because more people are staying and ageing in rural communities? Or has it always been and it’s just more obvious now?”
She said urban dwellers need to appreciate the quality of life afforded to them in cities is aided by the efforts of people who live in rural areas working in the resource sector and along major highways.
Mackenzie said there was recently an expose in Victoria about a home care worker who didn’t show up two days in a row for their scheduled visit from 7am to 2pm.
“It’s terrible that the worker didn’t show up,” Mackenzie said. “But people in Valemount are going, ‘Wait a minute. You had someone scheduled from 7am to 2pm?’ We might actually agree that they can only show up every other day, if the day they show up, they’re going to be here from 7am to 2pm. It is that kind of disconnect.”
She remarked on the amazing progress of the new Valemount Cares seniors housing development underway, the construction of which is slated to go to tender in January. She said you wouldn’t see this degree of community involvement in projects like this in the city.
“You will see a lot more involvement of governments and a lot more expectation of what governments will do; you don’t find that in rural BC, the expectation is less, because people have done more for themselves and for each other.”
She is hopeful there will be a better way to support people in rural communities to live there and to age in that community, whether it’s in their actual house, or a seniors facility.
“You shouldn’t have to leave the town where you came to get the groceries, the town where your kids went to school, the town where you worshipped.”
While seniors housing is an issue in both rural and urban areas, in rural areas, it’s often impossible to find suitable seniors housing of any type, regardless of income. She said governments need to have tough conversations about where tax dollars go.
“What has to be recognized is that there is a different way the government needs to support housing for seniors in rural BC.”
There’s power in numbers, she said.
“I get this sense that rural BC is finding its voice … If all the rural communities get together and say, ‘Hey, the amount of my income that goes to the Province, percentage-wise, is the same as yours and I get a lot [fewer] services. Why is that? And how can we equalise that?’”
She said rural seniors deserve that.
Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond, the provincial critic for seniors services and long-term care and the critic for health, also attended the seniors fair and took notes.
“You can’t keep doing things the same way over and over and over again, and hope for different outcomes,” she said. “What we need to do is think creatively and innovatively in order to provide for needs, especially in rural BC.”