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It's time to separate fact from fiction

It's time for a little myth-busting. Myths abound about seniors, and when repeated often enough, they become accepted as facts. Take for example the myth that seniors will bankrupt health care.

It's time for a little myth-busting.

Myths abound about seniors, and when repeated often enough, they become accepted as facts.

Take for example the myth that seniors will bankrupt health care. We know the proportion of seniors is increasing in Canada and that health care costs generally increase with age. Is our aging population to blame for uncontrollable health care costs? Not quite.

The research suggests that the impact of serving seniors is modest in comparison to other cost drivers, such as inflation, the increasing cost of drugs, technological innovation and an increased demand from all age groups for more and more services from the health care system. We now spend approximately 20 per cent of our health care dollars on seniors and that level of expenditure has remained fairly constant for the past decade. It really is time for us to stop blaming seniors for the soaring health care costs in Canada.

-Myth: The best place for a senior is in their own home.

We call this aging in place. Living at home may be the preferred choice for seniors but is it the right choice?

The evidence suggests it is, with one notable exception. Seniors who live alone often experience a more rapid decline as they age. Seniors live longer and better when they are well-connected to family, friends and the community.

Ironically, living alone is one of the factors that can lead the elderly to lose their independence.

-Myth: You need a million dollars to retire.

How much does a person need to save to enjoy a comfortable retirement? Dozens of books have been written on this subject. The authors all make the point that everyone's circumstances are different -- one size does not fit all -- making all those books pretty much useless.

You won't find the answer to how much you need to save for your retirement in a book or a magazine. You'll need to figure that out yourself and you may want to enlist the services of a professional to do so.

There are two rules of thumb when it comes to managing your finances in retirement. First, for most seniors the expectation is that your living expenses will drop when you leave the workforce; and second, retirees should aim to be debt-free.

You should run, not walk, away from anyone who counsels you differently.

-Myth: There are too many people in the emergency rooms at hospitals who should not be there.

According to the critics, if we could clear out patients with minor problems in emergency rooms, we could do away with the backlogs and begin to treat those who really need it.

In reality, the overcrowding in emergency rooms is due to a multitude of factors, such as the length of stay of admitted patients, complexity of patient cases, problems with human resources and poor integration within and between hospitals and from hospitals to communities.

Weeding out the few people who come into the hospital through the wrong door won't make much of a difference in reducing wait times or emergency room backlogs.

-Myth: Most of Canada's seniors are poor.

Many people believe seniors in Canada are destitute. They conjure up an image of a little old lady eating cat food in order to make her welfare check stretch to the end of the month.

In fact the low income rate among seniors in Canada dropped from 29 per cent in 1976 to just five per cent in 2009.

These are challenging times for everyone, but seniors, as a group, are doing just fine -- it's their kids that are struggling.

The low-income rate for families with children is twice the rate of the senior population.

It's easy, but ultimately misguided to let myths influence what we believe about seniors. I'll have more to say on this subject in a subsequent column.

Tom Carney is the co-ordinator of the Lionsview Seniors' Planning Society. Ideas for future columns are welcome. Contact him at 604-985-3852 or send an email to