By Amy Juschka
At 59, Wendy lives in a bleak single room occupancy (SRO) building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. After raising a family and being employed for most of her life, she is now forced to deal with her sometimes violent and drug-addicted male neighbours. “For women my age it’s like living in the third world.”
Wendy, not her real name, belongs to one of the fastest growing segments of B.C.’s female population – elderly women. Since the early 1970s, B.C.’s female population has been steadily getting older with the percentage of elderly women up 72 per cent from 1981, and the growth rate of elderly women, aged 65 and over, twice that of women under 65.
While elderly women are becoming a greater proportion of B.C.’s residents, they are also becoming increasingly vulnerable to poverty. About one in four women aged 65 and over have incomes below the Low-Income Cut-Off (LICO) line. This high prevalence of poverty among elderly women makes them more susceptible to violence and abuse by partners and caregivers.
“We’re expendable,” says Wendy, wrapped in tattered blankets and old towels for warmth. “Being a woman, being older, being handicapped, for each element you become one step lower in the eyes of our government.”
Charmaine Spencer, professor of gerontology at Simon Fraser University, says that elderly women suffer from a lack of resources on every level. “The people who are working on women’s issues tend not to see older women. Part of that reflects that they are so stretched in the first place.”
Since 2003, B.C.’s Liberal government has cut $1.7 million from 37 women’s centres, in addition to cutting funding to 24-hour women’s crisis lines, transition houses, and support programs. B.C.’s seniors’ advocate and poverty law programs have been eliminated, and other key services accessed by elderly women have been reduced, says Spencer.
The Minister’s Advisory Council of Women’s Health, the Ministry of Women’s Equality, the Women’s Health Bureau, the Human Rights Commission, and pay equity legislation have all been eliminated.
At the federal level, the Conservative government has cut $5 million from Status of Women Canada, has changed the mandate, dropping the word “equality” from the agency’s list of goals, and is no longer funding women’s groups that take part in advocacy, lobbying, or gender-based research.
Alice West, the 80-year-old chair of Women Elders in Action (WE ACT), says that cuts to Status of Women Canada have been devastating.
“They were sponsoring our study into the pension program, but they have told us that they will not fund us anymore. They say we can’t advocate, can’t make noise about things that are wrong, can’t criticize the government. If they’re not going to fund us on that basis then what will they fund us for?”
The cuts to the Status of Women could not have come at a worse time for elderly women, says Spencer. “The door has now been shut on them. There really isn’t a voice for them.”
Unique needs of elderly women
As coordinator of White Rock’s AMA House, the only transition house in North America that caters exclusively to elderly women leaving abusive situations, Suzi has witnessed first-hand the obstacles faced by poverty-stricken elderly women.
She says that a lack of transition homes is one area where the needs of elderly women are not being met due to cuts and shortages of funding.
AMA House has provided 133 women with shelter since opening in 2004, and has had to turn away more than double that number due to lack of funding. “We cannot meet the needs of the growing population, there needs to be specialized housing,” says Suzi.
She added that transition houses are typically noisy and chaotic and the staff are much more familiar with the needs of younger women. “They [elderly women] also have different barriers when it comes to abuse situations.”
“For older women, many stay in abusive situations because there is nowhere else to go, there is no affordable housing, no social programs,” says Spencer.
“Imagine that you’re a woman who has been married for 40 years and all of the sudden your violent marriage has fallen apart and you’re trying to make it in the work force with very few skills and very little support,” she added.
Efforts to be heard
Both Wendy and Alice say that not enough is being done to address the plight of elderly women living in poverty.
“Right now the Olympics are the highest priority with this government,” said Alice.
“The provincial government is very patronizing. They’ll listen, but sometimes I feel like somebody is patting me on the head saying, ‘don’t worry dear, I’ll look after it’, and nothing happens.”
Wendy takes a different approach to being heard. “I’m not one step lower, I’m here to stay and get in anyone’s face if I get pissed off enough. And I’ll stand on a soap box and scream if I have to.”
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