The “Golden” Years

A recent conversation I had with a senior at the grocery store reminded me of the challenges elderly people living in poverty face. The woman I encountered wore tattered clothes and used a walker. It appeared she suffered from cataracts, as she requested my assistance to read the labels on nearby jars of applesauce. There was a 50 cent price difference between the sweetened and unsweetened, so she decided to go with the less expensive, as she explained that she had sugar at home. “My pension is small, I have to watch my pennies,” she explained. I recalled a favourite saying of my Moms, “Save your pennies and the dollars will look after themselves.” Of course, pennies are now almost obsolete but you understand my point. How many of us consider what the impact of every purchase we can…or cannot make will have on our retirement?

Recent media reports suggest some people in the Capital Region may live way beyond their means and have little or no savings for retirement. In addition, many families and individuals struggle to afford the basic necessities of life and have nothing left each month to save. Both scenarios predict a bleak retirement. The“Golden” years? For many of us, maybe not.

A 2010 City of Edmonton report by the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council states more than one third of people 65 or older who live alone in the Edmonton Region (including surrounding communities such as St. Albert, Leduc, Fort Saskatchewan, and Spruce Grove) are living with low-incomes. *Many organizations (and the referenced report) use low-income cut-offs interchangeably with poverty lines to identify people who are substantially worse off than the average person. Sadly, women are often worse off than men, due in part to pension regulations. Older adults who don’t live alone fare better economically. But in this category again, a disproportionate number of women bear the burden of poverty, especially as they age. In the 70 plus age group, 21.8% of women have low incomes and 8.4% of men have low incomes.

Poverty is complex. A difficult divorce, domestic abuse, mental illness, physical disabilities – all can contribute to a life in poverty. In the Alberta Capital Region, 120,000 individuals live in poverty. Certainly unemployment and low wages are key factors. But, people can actually make a good income and then experience financial ruin and major personal impacts due to a health problem, a death in the family or another crisis that alters the course of their life.

Nobody plans to spend their retirement years in poverty, however many scenarios are risk factors for this situation to occur. Did one of these crises affect the senior I met in the grocery store and cause her descent into poverty? I can only speculate if a physical disability at a younger age and job loss were contributing factors. Although I will probably never know, her story is a gentle reminder that poverty can impact people of all ages and demographics and that we each have a role in helping make our community a better place to live for everyone.

*Statistics Canada 2006 Census Catalogue no. 97-559-XWE2006028.