Senior women living alone are a significant proportion of the senior population. The 2011 Census of Population(1)counted nearly 5 million people aged 65 and over, and 31.5% were senior women living alone. In July 2019 (2), there were over 6.5 million seniors in Canada. If the proportion of senior women living alone has remained the same (31.5%), then there are approximately 2 million of us in Canada today.
When the Board of Directors created our purpose, we had to ask ourselves why senior women living alone need the kind of support we offer. Why are there so many of us struggling? What factors and issues have brought us to this place?
The following are statistics and results from studies that highlight, explain and answer these questions.
Why we struggle financially…..
Before discussing our financial struggles as senior women, we need to understand the Canadian pension system. So, here is a brief description of the three components of our system.
Canada Pension Plan (CPP): Established in 1965, this is a contributory, earning-related program for working Canadians. Both the workers and the employers contribute to this fund. CPP payments are taxable. Spouses of deceased contributors receive a portion of the contributors payments, depending on the age at which the contributor died. There are other specific benefits that apply for those with disabilities or those with dependent children.
It’s important to note that this program was never intended to fully fund an individual’s retirement but rather was designed to cover only 25% of an individual’s average lifetime earnings. Workers were expected to save towards their retirements and employers were expected to create additional pension options for their employees.
Old Age Security program (OAS): This is a universal taxable benefit available to residents of Canada who are 65 years of age or older. The amount you receive depends on how long you have lived in Canada. Also, there is a non-taxable benefit for low-income seniors called the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS).
Private Pension Plans, Employer Pensions, Registered Retirement Savings Plans: The third component of our retirement pension system is those plans that we can contribute to voluntarily, if we are able to.
To put all of the above into perspective, for those who have never had the option or ability to participate in private pension plans/employer pensions/RRSPs, the maximum annual income from CPP and OAS combined is $21,271 ($1789.25 per month).
For those who are not eligible for the maximum amounts of CPP and OAS and who receive less than $18,600 per year, the GIS payment boosts their income to approximately $20,000 per year.
For women with disabilities, the average monthly CPP payment is $1,001.37 coupled with the maximum OAS monthly payment of $613.53, gives them a monthly income of $1614.90 (GIS boosts their income to approximately $20,000 per year).
So, it is easy to see why so many senior women are struggling. Considering that the recent individual CERB payments for Canadians who were unable to work due to Covid-19 equals an income of $24,000 per year, we are further challenged to understand why it is okay for senior women to live with less than that.
28% of us are living in poverty…..
In 2016, Stats Canada reported that 28% of single, senior women were living in poverty; almost one in three!
It is unlikely that this percentage has decreased since 2016. In fact, it is more likely that it has increased and will continue to increase as more baby boomers retire.
We also need to consider that many of us raised children as single mothers taking lower paying jobs without pension benefits but that allowed us more time freedom with our children. Those of us who were married or partnered often stayed home to care for children for at least part of our potential working lives, thereby decreasing the opportunity of receiving full employer pension incomes or even full CPP benefits. As well, the amount one receives from most employer pensions depends on one’s income and since women almost always have lower incomes than men, we receive less, regardless of whether or not we had children. Furthermore, many senior women only worked part-time or did contract work which decreases CPP contributions considerably.
Government Pensions have been falling …..
In 2016, the Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) levels were falling behind. For single seniors, they had fallen from 76 per cent of median incomes in 1984 to about 60 per cent in 2016. (3)
We think it is safe to say that when Statistics Canada completes the next census in 2021, OAS and GIS levels will have fallen even further behind the needs of single senior women.
Given all of the above, it’s no surprise that the GIS is provided disproportionately to single senior women because we are, essentially, the poorest of the poor in the senior demographic.
In 2016, the proportion of the population receiving the GIS was higher for single seniors than couples, and higher for single women than for single men.(3)
Why we can’t find affordable rental housing…..
The term “affordable” housing is defined in various ways and is often considered a subjective term. In other words, people individually determine what they can afford for their housing needs. However, there is an objective measurement for what is considered affordable created by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).
The CMHC considers housing is “affordable” when a household spends less than 30% of its pre-tax income on adequate shelter. Households that spend more than 30% of their income on shelter are deemed to be in core housing need, and those that spend 50% or more on shelter are in severe housing need.(4)
So, here is the very sobering reality. Senior women are more likely to live alone and have low incomes and therefore are more likely to live in core housing need. In fact, in 2016, 57.4% of seniors living in core housing need consisted of women who lived alone.(5)
In early 2020, we did a survey of the women in our Facebook group asking them what percentage of their income they were spending on housing. Over 50% of those who answered the survey were spending over 50% of their income and many were spending as much as 70% of their income on housing!
It follows that people who are spending more than 50% of their income on housing are at high risk of homelessness, and living with the fear of homelessness is exhausting and affects one’s quality of life significantly.
Many of us are living in precarious, unsatisfactory housing and even if we could move, we can’t find anything else that’s affordable because the supply is not meeting the demand. In January 2020, the CMHC reported that “the national vacancy rate is at its lowest level since 2002.”(6)
A number of factors have led us to this disastrous lack of rental units, not the least of which has been the lack of political will to manage the problem sooner and with more than just bandaid solutions.
About 20,000 social housing units were created every year following amendments to the National Housing Act in 1973. But starting in the mid-1980s, the federal government initiated a series of cuts in funding for national housing programs.
Then in 1993, the Federal government decided to get out of the business of creating social (affordable) housing entirely. They downloaded this work to the provinces but without giving the provinces the needed infrastructure to do the work, or any oversight to ensure it was done.
In 1966, 30,000 new low-income housing units were built across Canada, but this fell to only 7,000 in 1999. In the city of Calgary, with one of the most acute housing shortages, only 16 new units of affordable rental housing were built in 1996!(7)
Furthermore, many provinces did nothing to encourage non-profit housing organizations. And private developers were only required to provide affordability for 20 years. Twenty years has gone by and most of the privately built affordable units have been turned into market value rentals by the owners.
Since 2008, due to low inflation and interest rates, we’ve seen exploding house prices and a real estate bonanza for rich people. Average house prices have grown by 80% since 2009. At the same time, we’ve seen negative changes made to rent controls; rents that have doubled since 1990; developers receiving fatter profit margins by building condos and our provincial governments basically ignoring the housing needs of low to moderate income Canadians.
We are more likely to be socially isolated and lonely…..
“A home is a place where we can actively give support to and
receive support from others, so it just makes sense for
those of us who are feeling lonely or isolated to
live together in a “new-fangled family.”
~Pat Dunn, Founder of SWLT
Research simply confirms what we already know about why we are lonely. Circumstances like widowhood and the deaths of close friends, having compromised health status, having mobility/hearing/eyesight difficulties, children/family/friends who live too far away or do not visit, lacking access to transportation generally etc. all lead to loneliness and isolation.
It’s interesting, though, to learn how significant loneliness is for low income seniors living alone.
In 2019, Canadians 55-and-older with annual incomes of less than $50,000 were twice as likely to be very lonely or very isolated. And those who lived alone were generally the most isolated and lonely.(8)
In our Facebook group, members often discuss how their feelings about living alone have changed as they aged. It may have been their preferred lifestyle in their 50s but once they retire they start to fear being alone if they should fall or be seriously ill, with no one there to help. No one wants to die alone and many have said they would rather die than live in a Long Term Care facility.
When surveyed, a substantial one-third (33%) of Canadian seniors could not definitively say they have friends or family members they could count on to provide financial assistance in an emergency, and nearly one-in-five (18%) weren’t certain they’d have someone they could count on for emotional support during times of personal crisis.(8)
These are sobering statistics, particularly considering how damaging loneliness is to our physical and mental health. We know that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.(9) One study showed that the risk of death among men and women with the fewest social ties was more than twice as high as the risk for adults with the most social ties.(10) There is consistent and compelling evidence linking a low quantity or quality of social ties with a host of conditions, including development and progression of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer and delayed cancer recovery, and slower wound healing.(11)
And perhaps for some of us, the most distressing information relates to the link between social support and our mental health. Studies have shown that the lack of a supportive social network is linked to a 60% increase in the risk of dementia and cognitive decline; while socially-integrated lifestyles protect against dementia.(12)
How the SWLT shared living program makes a difference.….
It’s clear that senior women living alone are struggling and that our circumstances are significantly affecting our physical, emotional and mental health. It’s clear that we need solutions that work, and we need these solutions now, not ten years from now.
Senior Women Living Together is a grass-roots solution that helps on all fronts.
- Living together gives us more financial freedom
- it provides us with social support that is only an arms-length away
- it can be implemented within a few months
- it puts much-needed rental units back into the marketplace
- the government does not need to provide us with new rental units
But best of all, SWLT allows us to keep our independence, to make autonomous decisions and to live where and with whom we want.
1. Statistics Canada, “Living Arrangements of Seniors”, 2011 Census of Population
2. Statistics Canada. “Seniors and Aging Statistics”, https://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/subjects-start/seniors_and_aging
3. Shillington, Richard. “An Analysis of the Economic Circumstances of Canadian Seniors.” Broadbent Institute, February 2016. https://www.broadbentinstitute.ca/an_analysis_of_the_economic_circumstances_of_canadian_seniors
4. Homeless Hub. “Affordable Housing.”
5. Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Seniors Forum. “Report on Housing Needs of Seniors.” Government of Canada.
6. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. “Canada’s Rental Vacancy Rate Declines.” January 24, 2020.
7. Wikipedia. “Homelessness in Canada.” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness_in_Canada
8. Angus Reid Institute: A Portrait of Social Isolation and Loneliness in Canada Today. June, 2019.
9. Holt-Lunstad, Julianne. “Loneliness and Isolation in Older Adults.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 67(4) February 2019.
10. Berkman LF, and SL Syme. “Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: a nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents.” American Journal of Epidemiology. 1979 Feb; 109(2):186-204.
11. Ertel, Karen., Maria Glymour, and Lisa Berkman. “Social Networks and Health: A Life Course Perspective Integrating Observational and Experimental Evidence.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2009;26:73–92
12. National Seniors Council. “Report on the Social Isolation of Seniors.” 2014. Governement of Canada.