This letter is part of series of Open Letter essays from Canadian leaders in Healthcare. To see the complete series please click here 

It was the clever comeback heard around the world: “Because it’s 2015.”

Our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s response to a reporter asking why it was important to have a gender-balanced and ethnically diverse cabinet was witty, that’s for sure. It’s curious, though, that our new government aiming to reflect Canadians and the issues that matter to them is the first in years to not have a Minister Responsible for Seniors, especially at a time when older Canadians now represent our country’s fastest growing demographic, with 2015 being the first year when Canadians over 65 began outnumbering those under 15.

It isn’t that our new federal government isn’t paying attention to the issues that matter to older Canadians. In its short time in office, it has taken significant action on important issues. Its proposed pension reforms? Fantastic! A pledge to spend billions on strengthening home care? Couldn’t be happier!

Indeed, some individual issues are being well-addressed, but without a Minister Responsible for Seniors and a comprehensive national strategy to tackle the multitude of interrelated concerns older Canadians have, this government may continue to miss the big picture.

Five million Canadians over 65 now represent 16 per cent of our overall population, but that number is expected to double over the next two decades. Many experts also agree that we’re already behind in planning for the demographic shift that’s well underway.

What was fascinating about this last election was that in the year leading up to it many prominent national organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, CARP, the Canadian Labour Congress and many others called for a National Seniors Strategy.  The federal government’s Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) even funded a team led by myself and others to do the research that could ensure that any future directions in this area could be practical and evidence-based.  The evidence-informed National Seniors Strategy that we developed, fully accessible at www.nationalseniorsstrategy.ca, outlined four areas around which to focus: helping older Canadians to be independent and engaged citizens; supporting all Canadians to lead healthy and active lives; supporting the delivery of care closer to home; and finally ensuring our eight million unpaid caregivers receive the support and recognition they need.

We were glad to see that our work was well-received in both policy circles and the media. The Institute for Research on Public Policy endorsed this framework and we were heartened to see The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and other media organizations have endorsed the need for a National Seniors Strategy.  Ryerson University has further founded a new National Institute on Ageing to advance a national policy dialogue that supports the goals of our National Seniors Strategy. Despite high-profile discussions around the need for a National Seniors Strategy, there still hasn’t been any clear or concerted movement toward it at the federal level, even though ageing-related issues were discussed more than ever during the last election. This hasn’t stopped the provinces from continuing to take the lead thus far.

Ontario in recent years developed one of the most comprehensive strategies to support ageing in recent memory and further dedicated a Minister Responsible for Seniors Affairs to advance its agenda. Many other provinces have either done the same or are moving in that direction, including Alberta, New Brunswick and Quebec. That means we have a rare moment of consensus in Canada with a new federal government in place – so why don’t we finally seize the opportunity?

Adequately addressing issues facing older Canadians benefits all of us.  It means that older Canadians can continue to work and contribute to their communities, but it also means they can live independently at home and not in more costly institutional care settings that all of us help to pay for.

While I applaud the work our new federal government has done, it is clear that there is still more to do.  That’s why many of us still see a clear opportunity for our federal government to provide leadership on the many issues that need to be tackled at a national level by convening provincial and territorial governments to address them together.

Without an overarching strategy and plan in place, we may continue to deal with issues in a piecemeal way where some are addressed in one place and others are addressed in another place. What unites us is that we are all ageing and faster than ever before. We have already lost some time, so there is no time like the present to come together to get ourselves back on track and ahead of the game so perhaps we can one day see Canada as the best country to grow up and grow old in. 

About the Author

Samir K. Sinha, MD, DPhil, FRCPC, Expert Lead, Ontario Seniors Strategy. Director of Geriatrics, Mount Sinai and the University Health Network Hospitals.