Ellen Duncan, a Valemount senior who helps organize a biweekly lunch at the Golden Years Lodge, said she’s worried that seniors may not accept government support for fear that doing so would be taken as a sign that they can’t live independently. /ABIGAIL POPPLE

By Abigail Popple, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, RMG

The Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction is amending three laws with the aim of further reducing poverty throughout the province.

Among the amendments is an update to the 2018 Poverty Reduction Strategy Act that sets more ambitious poverty reduction targets over the next 10 years. This amendment includes a goal to reduce poverty among seniors by 50 per cent – the first time a target for senior poverty reduction has been set in B.C.’s history, the Ministry told The Goat.

The new legislation will act as a framework for a new Poverty Reduction Strategy, which is set to be released this spring.

While Valemount residents who spoke with The Goat appreciate that the Province is taking steps to address senior poverty, they also expressed concern that rural communities lack necessary infrastructure for distributing new resources to seniors.

Throughout B.C., poverty fell by 45 per cent from 2016 through 2021, the Ministry said – the 2018 Poverty Reduction Strategy Act had set a target of just 25 per cent.

“While B.C. has exceeded its legislated targets to reduce poverty, people are still struggling. There is more to do, that’s why government is working on systemic, generational changes and setting even more ambitious poverty reduction targets,” the Ministry said.

The specific methods through which the Province will meet these targets will be laid out in the forthcoming Poverty Reduction Strategy, said the Ministry. Changes to government policies and programs will be communicated to seniors in a variety of ways, they added.

“For example, if [seniors] receive regular payments from government, a notification [about new resources] may be included along with the payment,” said the Ministry. “Since this is a 10-year strategy, a focus on new changes to reduce poverty will continue throughout that time period.”

Rising cost of living at the root of the issue

“Global inflation has been felt everywhere, and it has been particularly difficult for seniors,” the Ministry said. “Although seniors have a number of important social supports like Old Age Security (OAS), the impact of inflation has been particularly hard on them in the last few years.”

Senior citizens in Valemount agreed that inflation is a concern, but wondered how the Province plans to make financial support accessible to those who need it.

Ellen Duncan, a Valemount senior who helps organize a biweekly lunch at the Golden Years Lodge, said she’s worried that seniors may not accept government support for fear that doing so would be taken as a sign that they can’t live independently and should be moved into a long-term care centre. Additionally, it’s difficult to find out what supports are available to seniors when resources aren’t consolidated in one easy-to-find place, she said.

“I think there’ll be a stumbling block for those that could use it because it says, ‘I can’t look after my family.’ And then for those that desperately need it, chances are they don’t have the skills and don’t have the connections to get it,” she said.

Duncan recalled a Province-run meeting last May where seniors were asked to share their experiences with injuries from falling in exchange for $20. She brought her neighbour, who had fallen the week prior, to participate in the discussion.

“I leaned over and said, ‘Would you like to discuss your fall?’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t need any help, and I’ve got you.’” Duncan said. “They’re afraid that if they say anything, they’ll be taken out of their homes. And that’s the secret ingredient when you’re working with seniors: they want their independence and they want to be in their homes.”

The Ministry told The Goat that adults have to consent to being put into a long-term care facility. If an adult is unable to consent, the adult closest to them may act as their substitute and make decisions about long-term care on their behalf. It emphasized that assessments for whether an adult should be put into care are not based on income.

Jamie Mintz, a former outreach coordinator for Better At Home – an organization that provides services like grocery delivery and light housework for seniors – agreed that it can be difficult for seniors to seek help when they need it. In her experience, seniors are more inclined to go without than other demographics.

But even when seniors do accept help, it doesn’t address the root issue of rising prices on housing and food, Mintz said.

“My grandmother still has her mortgage, so she’s 81 and goes to work every day […] For some people, you can’t have a mortgage and pay for food, it’s either one or the other,” she said. “We need the prices to stop going up.”

Isolation and burnout

Aside from money for food and housing, Mintz said that seniors also need support from their social networks to access resources and avoid becoming isolated.

“When I first started in the position a year ago, I didn’t realize how lonely it is to be a senior in Valemount,” Mintz said. “They fall through the cracks, I think, because they don’t have that regular contact.”

Mintz believes that consolidating resources under the umbrella of Northern Health and securing more staff for programs catering to seniors could make it easier to spread the word about the forthcoming changes to the Province’s poverty reduction initiatives.

While there are existing resources for seniors struggling with food security or mobility issues, small communities like Valemount don’t always have the capacity to distribute information about what’s available, she said.

“There’s barely enough staff here to run simple programs, never mind bringing in more,” Mintz said.
Volunteers and paid staff for senior-focused organizations are sometimes seniors’ only social connections, she added.

In small rural towns, this creates added pressure for organizers who are already straining to make do with less resources than their urban counterparts, she said.

“The people who are helping are burning out because they’re trying to fill a void that is unfillable.”