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The growing population of NWT seniors will bring a quiet, radical change to the graying fabric of the territory.

From 2003 to 2018, the seniors population almost doubled – from 2,787 to 5,981 people ages 60 and over. By 2035, that figure is projected to be 9,383, according to a July 2019 territorial government report.

Last summer, Yellowknife Centre Julie Green warned of an oncoming crisis in seniors housing in Yellowknife in the Legislative Assembly.

To meet growing demand, the new legislative assembly released a few new plans to address the needs of seniors in their mandate document, an overview of their goals for their time in office this term.

One of those goals is to “enable seniors to age in place with dignity.”

“I think it’s a step in the right direction. It’s certainly not the end,” Suzette Montreuil, executive director of NWT Seniors Society, recently said. For her, its more promising plans include attention to senior income and in-house support, considering about 40 per cent of seniors earn less than $25,000.

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Suzette Montreuil, executive director for the NWT Seniors’ Society, says the new Legislative Assembly’s mandate’s use of specific benchmarks are a helpful measure of success.
NNSL File Photo

The goal of MLAs according to their mandate is to ensure 10 per cent more seniors have access to housing programs through the NWT Housing Corporation by summer 2021. The plans also called for a Seniors Home Heating Subsidy increase by spring 2022.

Finally, there is supposed to be a separate income assistance program tailored to seniors and persons with disabilities by winter 2022.

“That could be a really good thing. I don’t know what that’s going to look like,” according to Montreuil.

She said the plan’s age friendly community grants program could be promising, but what it would actually do is still an open question.

Montreuil said the housing policy ideas take a strong approach, focusing on the number of units available, income levels, and access to programs. The mandate’s use of specific measures and timelines are similarly helpful, she said, as vague commitments to “improve”  something can often miss the mark.

However, she sees some weaknesses. While the mandate does call for the construction of 100 new units, Montreuil said it has some blind spots about actually increasing the amount of affordable housing.

“They’re not actually talking about building more affordable homes, or helping seniors who own their own homes,” she said

There are other concerns. For example, Montreuil said her organization often receives reports of seniors who are uncomfortable with social issues commonly present in public housing.

And seniors who own their own home struggle increasingly with maintenance and cleaning as they age.

The ability to do these tasks or have them done can be key for the majority of seniors who want to stay and age at home, versus moving into some form of assisted living situation.

“For sure, most seniors want to stay in their homes,” she said. “Any survey, the vast majority of seniors want to stay in their own homes.”

A recent two-year paid caregiver pilot project could be a good example of the assistance that’s needed. Under the test program, seniors are able to access help with cleaning, laundry, meal preparation, hauling wood, shovelling snow, and running errands.

It should be available to seniors in Behchoko, Dettah, Ndilo, Yellowknife, Hay River, and Tuktoyaktuk.

If it’s successful, she said it should be expanded to cover other areas where seniors commonly need help, such as larger tasks like home repairs, maintenance and summer yard work. Errands like shopping trips or visits to the bank could be included, too.

A senior living in their home may need help with larger tasks, like home repairs, home maintenance, and yard work. There may be need for more help, with banking or shopping trips that require stepping out of the home.

“It’s a whole continuum of housing issues,” she said.

Seniors consultation needed

The 19th Legislative Assembly’s mandate also lays out plans for legislation aimed at protecting older adults, like what’s similarly in place for children. In related commitments, the government calls a public awareness campaign on seniors’ rights and training for GNWT staff to spot abuse.

Before this process starts in earnest, Montreuil suggested consultation on the issue.

“I would really want them to check with seniors and older adults in the NWT and see what they want. Because it’s often related to family,” she said.

In cases that appeared before her organization, she said these situations within families rarely involve seniors wishing to lay charges: “They just want the abuse to stop.”

There are other measures, like helping seniors stay involved in their community, that can make an important difference in their connection to their friends and neighbours, which in turn improves their overall safety, she said.

“I think (the mandate’s focus on seniors is) a step in the right direction,” she said. “It’s certainly not the end.”

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