A few years from now, almost a quarter of all Canadians will be seniors.

That actual number is 22.6% by 2041.  An aging population puts a lot of pressure on our healthcare systems, and affects the system negatively in its entirety.

Why are there so many seniors though?

Great question. There are multiple reasons as to why, but it’s mostly due to a shift in generational attitude when it comes to reproduction and families. It’s also due to a shift in demographics.

Back then, families had a lot of children, but more so now, families tend to be smaller. The baby boomers – the most crowded of the generations – are approaching the age of retirement. Their parents are either dying, or dead. And they are many.

But the reason why we have such a large population that is aging is due to Canada having a very high life expectancy.

So what’s the big deal?

Don’t get me wrong, having a high life expectancy is great! It is something that we should be proud of – and that we should cherish.

However, having a high life expectancy does not necessarily mean having a good quality of life, especially in the later stages.

It comes with an increased pressure on healthcare services by having to deal with chronic illnesses, like diabetes or cancer or mental health, which are extremely costly for healthcare systems. Chronic illnesses are one of the major stressors for public health.

It also means regular visits to the hospitals to treat persistent lung infections, to treat skin cancer, to heal broken bones, to treat Alzheimer’s and dementia, and most often… to spend our last days.

Because of this, more resources are / will have to be allocated for those seniors who will and do regularly use hospital or health services, which overall has a negative impact on the system as a whole.

what can we do about it?

It is estimated that 90% of people will need access to palliative care in order to treat the pain and all of the symptoms – both personal and those that affect families – of dying.

Palliative care does not help you die, it helps you live before you die.

If you don’t know what that is, palliative care is end of life care, that often begins as soon as there’s a diagnosis of a terminal illness. It ensures that the quality of life you have is better overall as you progress on your final journey. There are treatments to help manage pain, like massage therapy. Sometimes all you want is to be able to feel the grass beneath your feet – and so a nurse takes you outside for a while. Perhaps there are activities to keep your brain and mind healthy like games and crosswords and social events.  It even goes so far in ensuring your mental and spiritual health are well tended to, by having interactions with counselors to cope with the reality that you’re about to die.

Palliative care dramatically improves the quality of life, whether you choose to access a care centre or access home care services that are in growing demand.

Incredible, but how come I’ve never heard of it?

You’ve probably never even heard of it because only an estimated 30% of people are able to access palliative care. That’s because it is often costly to access them, but most often, access to them are not timely. It is grim, but there are some wait times to even access this care that so many desire, but that so many need to have a good quality of life.

It is not uncommon to find that palliative care centres are low in funding, and to counter that, they often rely on public goodwill to fundraise for new machines and tools to continue to deliver quality service. But also, to counter the low funds, the price of admission is high, and a lot of insurance providers do not completely cover the costs.

I’ve had to experience the death of two family members, both of whom had suffered at the end of their days. I knew that if we could afford palliative care for them, the experience of their death would have been much more comfortable for everyone. It was terrifying to see them strapped up with tubes and forced into a coma to null the pain. I would much rather have seen them go in comfort and in peace – not in pain and suffering.

So palliative care… that’s a solution?

Yes! But there’s still a problem.

There are 182 palliative care centres in Ontario, and 155 hospitals.

The spending for them is lopsided though; palliative and end of life care services have $230M (155 from 2016 + 75 from 2017) in provincial funding over three years, meaning once again that most centres have to privately operate in order to be sustainable, which reduces accessibility for those less fated with money – seniors who are not able to retire, for example. Hospitals on the other hand receive about $1.6 B in funding this year.

While most of us wish to die on our own terms, 50% of the population will die in their hospital beds – not in theirs in peace and comfort at home.

And you can see where this is going. If we’re dying in the hospital, we’re using up healthcare resources. We’re using up a hospital bed instead of sleeping in our own. Of course, being confined to hospital walls is extremely detrimental to quality of life, and thus, the experience of dying. If we could access palliative care, we could get regular visits from community nurses, and get walked around outside to see the light of the sun instead of the sterile lights in our ward.

So access to palliative care as a whole would increase the quality of life of people in need, and reduce the burden of having to care for chronically and terminally ill patients in the hospital, while those resources could be distributed elsewhere.

What can we do about it?

For now, you can support any of the centres and services by donating. Here’s a list of them here.

For a local organisation, consider supporting the OutCare foundation that is a constant fundraiser to support palliative care centres.

Finally, there are many people that volunteer for hospices and palliative care centres! They help families grieve, and a lot of times they go to keep patients company. They are there to entertain, to help, and to care.

More funding for palliative care overall would essentially alleviate hospital costs, reduce the pressure on hospital services, mitigate the stress of chronic illnesses on public health, save money, save lives, and help those that are dying… live before they die.