Health & Wellness

Well-Meaning “Senior Strategy” May Make Things Worse

Viewing seniors as a problem to be solved just creates more ageism, one researcher says

Photo: iStock/Dobrila Vignjevic.


In 2013, Toronto launched an ambitious “seniors strategy.” It was a response to the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities program. The Toronto Senior Strategy promised to tackle ageism, strengthen social services, make public buildings and outdoor spaces more accessible, and create opportunities for seniors to increase their civic and social participation.

While the strategy’s intentions were good, a paper recently published in the the Journal of Aging Studies argues that it actually promotes ageism by categorizing seniors as “a serious social and financial problem.”

An analysis by political scientist Meghan Joy found that the strategy frequently viewed seniors themselves as the problem to be addressed. Joy’s analysis was based on 82 interviews that included discussions with municipal, provincial, and federal bureaucrats, city officials, NGOs, and academics.

“A major concern is the burden senior citizens present to Canada’s health care system, which risks being bankrupted by their needs,” Joy wrote about her interviews. “The old are understood as taking something away from the young,”

In her analysis, she found that the strategy failed to put enough emphasis on making the city more hospitable for seniors—by making sure public infrastructure was physically accessible for everyone and increasing access to public home care, affordable transit, and supportive housing.

Instead, she wrote, the onus was often on seniors themselves to adjust, as illustrated through disease prevention efforts.

“You are supposed to be responsible for your own health…. You are supposed to eat properly, exercise properly, while looking after your family, put money aside for your old age…, and be active because then you will be healthy and vibrant. But they don’t take into account the fact that certain things are out of your control,” one senior citizen advocate told Joy. “And then if you get sick, there is the assumption that you didn’t do the right thing, that it is your fault. You are responsible for the fact that you have got this aging thing happening to you and you are supposed to be youthful.”

While finding ways to prevent diseases are obviously important, Joy stressed how the shifting of responsibility also creates a scapegoat, since it ultimately distracts from political and economic decisions on the part of governments contributing to the problem through austerity cuts.

“[It distracts from] political economic decisions such as bailing out large banks post-recession, cutting corporate and income tax rates, and keeping property tax rates low, as well as refusing to use new forms of municipal taxation,” she wrote.

A better strategy, Joy said, would move away from seeing aging citizens as the problem and make accessible physical and social environments the top priority. That would also include more emphasis on public recreation centres and programs, as well as reinvestments in long-term care facilities.