Insights

Insights January 2024

Boomers’ Readiness for Aging

Donna Duncan and David Coletto

Bommer

In four years, the oldest of the baby boomers’ generation will turn 80. By 2040, Ontario’s population over that age will nearly double.

For many, the impact of these numbers is hard to comprehend. But as baby boomers get older and start developing complex care needs, the services and supports we offer will need to expand significantly.

At every stage of their lives, boomers have had a profound, and often underestimated, impact on society – not only in Canada, but also around the world. As babies, their parents faced diaper shortages. When it was time for them to head off to school, there were not enough classrooms. Moreover, as they entered the housing market, there were not enough homes. Significant changes were required.

Until recently, a key piece of missing information in our ongoing conversations about seniors’ care planning was how the boomer generation is preparing itself for potential aging challenges. How are boomers getting ready for the next stage of their lives? What do they think about their future care needs? What plans have they started putting in place? Are they adequately prepared for what is to come?

To gain important insights and help with future policy planning, the Ontario Long Term Care Association, which represents 70% of the province’s long-term care homes –including private, not-for-profit, municipal, hospital, culturally specific and First Nations homes – commissioned Abacus Data, one of Canada’s leading public opinion firms, to survey 1,000 Ontarians aged 68 to 78 years. That demographic of boomers includes those most likely to need care in the not-so-distant future. Their responses, however, show that many are not adequately prepared for the care challenges that lie ahead. 

While an overwhelming majority of survey respondents said maintaining autonomy, independence and control are what matter most to them, just one in 10 (or 12%) said that they had given serious thought to where they would live in old age and what kind of care they may need. 

Most respondents reported that they want and expect to age in their own homes as long as possible, but that number dropped from 72% to 56% when they were informed about the potential costs of doing so should they require in-home assistance. Just 20% planned to ask family and friends for help, while only 13% said they could afford round-the-clock care if, and when, they needed it. At the same time, 38% said it would be difficult for them to afford to retrofit their homes to make them more accessible at costs ranging between $5,000 and $40,000, depending on their needs. 

The findings underscore not only that baby boomers need to better understand what they need to start preparing for, but also what policy makers need to consider to avert unintended, and potentially harmful, consequences. The lessons from Ontario, meanwhile, appear applicable to almost everywhere the population is aging, including the rest of Canada.  

The survey data revealed three important takeaways: 

  1. Most, if not all baby boomers, are not really thinking about the future and what is going to happen to them as they age. While some have thought about the future, the vast majority say that they have given these issues very little or no thought and that they are not ready for the challenges of aging. 
     
  2. People have a low understanding about what types of care they may need, what the costs of that care could be and how easy or difficult it may be to prepare their homes or pay for in-home care supports. Because they have not thought much about future needs, baby boomers are neither as well informed nor as realistic as they could be about the options and costs.
     
  3. Most survey respondents believe that we as a society are not ready for the demographic tsunami heading our way. While they are not thinking enough about their future care needs, they also are worried that our existing elder-care systems may be inadequate for their needs.

These results are not entirely surprising. It is human nature, after all, to put off thinking about the future, especially if it could involve significant upheaval and change. Social stigmas about aging also persist. Many are reluctant to discuss aging, frankly, because they fear losing independence and control.  

Another Abacus Data survey also found that a significant portion of baby boomers lack adequate retirement savings. This indicates a potential reliance on social systems as they age and begin to face health complications.

Research has shown that 20% of people over 80 will have complex care needs requiring the high levels of care currently provided in long-term care homes. While the goal is to help people stay at home for as long as possible, some individuals will eventually have serious conditions, such as severe stroke or later stage dementia, with needs too high to live independently, or for their family caregiver to manage. With people likely to live longer on average than ever before, we need to plan. 

Strong collaborations have emerged in recent years among leaders in seniors’ care, healthcare, education and government. These are welcome developments as these spheres intersect. Still, the survey data suggest that there continues to be much work to do, especially when it comes to collaboration, coordination and public education to help us best prepare for the future.  

The government has invested significantly in Ontario in recent years to try to improve senior care. For example, Ontario has committed to expanding home care and to creating 30,000 new long-term care spaces. These steps are in the right direction and we should applaud such efforts. That said, our research shows that baby boomers expect to play an active role in their own aging process but, as mentioned above, have limited knowledge about what that could entail or what the costs may be. 

So what needs to happen? For starters, we need to continue to work together to provide more information about aging and encourage boomers to think and plan ahead. We also need to meet boomers where they are at by respecting their desire for autonomy and providing supports that enable their active engagement in their aging process as they seem to desire a very different approach to care and services than their parents’ generation.

Such efforts will require multi-sector planning and collaboration – across local infrastructure, transportation, housing, healthcare and social services, education and more – to develop and implement innovative and aligned solutions. Nobody can address these problems alone, and it must happen in consultation with the people we are serving.

While some of this important work is underway, we must not stop. We need to work collectively to address our demographic challenges and to ensure a brighter future for all our seniors, including our aging baby boomers. 

About the Author(s)

Donna Duncan is the CEO of the Ontario Long Term Care Association.

David Coletto is the founder, chair and CEO of Abacus Data. He is also an expert on the intersection of public opinion and public policy.

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