On a dark morning at 9 a.m., rain pours off the roof at the Salvation Army on Fraser Street. Inside, dozens of people retreat from the cold and gather for a hot breakfast. They are greeted at the door by smiling volunteers, gospel music, and the smell of waffles and boiled eggs.
The Salvation Army holds these breakfasts three times a week. Some people come to meet old friends and some come because otherwise they couldn’t afford to eat.
About 50 people were served last Friday. They came from all walks of life, but between the walking canes and spectacles, there was one trend that could not go unnoticed. Over half of them were seniors.
Poverty among the elderly isn’t a new issue in Vancouver, but with an aging population and the rising price of food, rent and transportation, some say it will only get worse.
Senior citizens, or those over 65, are gradually becoming a bigger and bigger proportion of Vancouver’s homeless population. Right now, 15 per cent of the city’s homeless are seniors. That’s up by 50 per cent from 2005. According to the 2011 United Way seniors’ vulnerability report, some shelters are seeing people over 80 for the first time.
By 2027, it’s projected that people over 65 will make up nearly one-quarter of Vancouver’s population. So, even if poverty rates stay the same, more seniors will be affected.
More Vancouver seniors will live on a fixed-income
Beverley Pitman, who covers the seniors’ portfolio at the United Way of the Lower Mainland, says even though people are living longer, they are often not financially prepared.
“On the one hand, the baby boomers are a well-to-do generation. On the other hand, because elderly people are getting older and older, they have less money in the bank.”
Pitman says as the city ages, more and more seniors will live on a fixed income.
Bob Jackson, 58, who lives in the Grand Union Hotel on Hastings Street West, receives some government assistance, but says it’s not enough to survive on.
He spends his days watching TV and looking for odd jobs so he can eat.
Jackson relies on the Salvation Army when times get rough, but only comes for breakfast on the weeks he can’t afford groceries. “You have to try and take one day at a time and eat when you can eat.”
While seniors’ poverty on the Downtown Eastside is visible, it is less obvious in residential neighbourhoods like Kensington-Cedar Cottage.
Michelle Godden, program director for the adult day program at the Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House, said one of the biggest issues in the community is something called “house rich, cash poor.”
“People are sitting on houses that are worth a lot of money, but don’t have a lot of money themselves.”
While there are support services for senior citizens across the city, Godden said many of the providers can’t keep up with the demand for them.
“Across the Lower Mainland, we all have waiting lists that are huge.”
Low-income seniors more likely to be isolated
One service the Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House offers is the seniors’ supper club.
About 60 people attended the event Oct. 10 and, for $6, were served a turkey dinner with stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce and, of course, pumpkin pie. Several said they were widowed or divorced and rely on events like these to make friends.
A report by the United Way of the Lower Mainland shows that poverty and isolation often goes hand in hand for seniors.
“With one in five seniors living in poverty – and with seniors soon to outnumber children in many Lower Mainland communities – we face a growing risk of vulnerability and isolation.”
Madeline Murphy-Brown came to the supper because the 66-year-old said she was sick of staring at four white walls and needed an opportunity to meet people.
She isn’t the only one. In Metro Vancouver, one in four seniors live alone.
“Some days I have to force myself to go out,” she said.
“My husband passed away a year ago, so I’m trying to sort myself out and get more into the community to meet people, because I don’t have anyone at home.”