FOCUS: The struggles of being a senior in Surrey

Surrey unveils new seniors strategy, works to make city more age-friendly

SURREY — A senior walked into the Surrey Food Bank some time ago with a story that brought the executive director to tears.

The woman’s husband had become extremely ill and was put into long-term care. After paying for her rent, basic necessities and her husband’s care, there was very little left over. She was going without food.

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“She’s an example of people you don’t think need the food bank,” said executive director Marilyn Herrmann. “After 14 years in food-banking, I think I’ve heard every story and that was one I’d never thought about. As someone ages, their health-care costs are increasing. Where do you get the money from if you’re on a fixed income?” The food bank now has a program dedicated to seniors. Every two weeks, seniors can “shop” at the food bank, with the help of a volunteer, choosing items that best suit their needs.

The amount of seniors using the new program has tripled in just a year. It began serving 30 seniors last July, and the last depot served some 90 seniors.

Herrmann said in the past, the food bank has been focused on its signature Tiny Bundles program that serves infants and moms-to-be.

“We’ve been so focused on our babies and we didn’t think the seniors had that great a need. But they do, and they are a growing demographic,” she said.

Those in Surrey are generally living longer, and the proportion of older adults is increasing.

In 2011, 62,100 seniors (people aged 65 and older) were living in Surrey, representing 12.6 per cent of the total population of 493,200. That was an increase of 30,700 seniors since 1991.

It’s projected that by 2021 Surrey’s population will be 594,500, with 101,700 – or 17.1 per cent – of those people being seniors.


Ramona Kaptyn, chair of the South Surrey-White Rock chapter of CARP – A New Vision of Aging for Canada, says it’s a struggle to survive for many local seniors.

“You’d be amazed at how much poverty there is among senior women here,” Kaptyn said of the South Surrey, White Rock area.

While Kaptyn acknowledged seniors today are better off than almost any other time in history, many don’t realize how many single women are living in “hidden poverty.”

“They’re just living hand to mouth from the little bit they’re getting,” she said.

In 2011, 9,680 of Surrey’s seniors lived alone and the 2011 Census found that 6,505 – or 12 per cent – of Surrey’s seniors were considered to be low income. Low income seniors are more prevalent in neighbourhoods such as City Centre, where 39 per cent are considered low income.

CARP advocates all levels of government on a variety of issues, Kaptyn noted, and the current advocacy campaign focuses on pension reform. The campaign calls for Canadian Pension Plans to be increased, as well as a national pension summit and a universal pension plan.

The group notes 12 million Canadians – two thirds of the work force – do not have occupational pension plans.

Kaptyn said the organization is pleased to see Ontario developing its own pension plan, and hopes to see British Columbia do the same, because many seniors just aren’t able to get by.

In White Rock and Surrey, Kaptyn said, affordable housing is a huge issue.

According to Kaptyn, “there just aren’t that many places to rent anymore. A lot of rental properties are now condos, so affordable housing is a really big thing.”

Many low-income seniors’ households are renters and 44 per cent of senior-led renter households are considered to be in core housing need (paying more than 30 per cent of income on rent).

In December, 2013, 1,421 Surrey senior households received rent subsidies through BC Housing’s Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters program.

Surrey has approximately 1,000 nonmarket or social housing units for lowincome seniors. In March, 2013, there were close to 250 Surrey households on the waiting list for seniors’ social housing.


Ron Watson, who was the executive director of the Surrey and White Rock Home Care Association from 1984 to 2002, was an advocate for a new model of seniors care.

Watson was the man behind an ambitious development proposal in Surrey in 1996. He said there was nothing else like it in B.C. – a complete seniors’ community with everything from condos for active emptynesters to hospice care for the dying. The proposed Seaton Woodward Wellness and Health Centre would have included 450 to 750 residential units for independent living, two 16-bed home-care units for seniors requiring some assistance, 32 homecare suites, a 100-bed geriatric care facility, a three-storey medical centre and a 16-bed hospice.

He’s dreamed of building a community like this since 1951. That was the first year he visited Arizona, where the dignity seniors received at an adult retirement community called Sun City struck him.

He hoped the concept – though on a smaller scale – could come to Surrey.

But it never came to be.

“I couldn’t convince government,” Watson said, though he holds out hope that the concept will one day make its way here.

“I think we need to build facilities like that – it’s what seniors want,” Watson said.


At city hall, work is being done to make Surrey more “age-friendly.”

Surrey adopted the Age-Friendly Strategy for Seniors in May, which identifies a framework for becoming an age-friendly city, including a vision, four defined outcome streams and recommendations for action.

“It originated from the Crime Reduction Strategy,” said Coun. Barbara Steele, chair of the city’s seniors advisory and accessibility committee. “I went to Dianne (Watts) years ago and said we’re taking care of everybody, but we don’t really have a section for seniors. She said go for it. And that’s where it started and we decided we were going to touch on health and safety and abuse, and here we are.”

The strategy focuses on four key outcomes, which are safety; health and wellness; transportation and mobility; and housing, buildings and outdoor spaces.

But much has already been done to make Surrey more age-friendly, Steele said. In fact, Surrey is recognized by the United Way as an age-friendly city, she added.

So far this year, the city has hosted four seniors’ forums, which are held in four different languages including Mandarin and Punjabi. A total of 488 seniors have attended so far this year, and three more are on the books for 2014.

They cover everything from fraud protection to fitness to health to speaking up about abuse.

Steele said these events are important to ensure seniors are well educated and avoid isolation. She noted the importance of offering the forums in a variety of languages, recognizing the growing immigrant population the city sees.

Between 2000 and 2010, Metro Vancouver saw 10,600 new senior immigrants of which Surrey received the second highest, 2,105, next to Vancouver with 3,345.

In 2011, approximately 9,630 seniors in Surrey did not speak English, representing 17 per cent of Surrey’s seniors, greater than the Metro Vancouver average of 15 per cent.

The city also held its annual Aging in Place conference on May 31 at the Newton Seniors Centre, which was attended by 470 seniors. Topics at the conference included financial and legal information, mature driving, health and more.

Caregiver sessions have also been held, along with a variety of special events and even mobile outreach.

In addition to the seniors’ forums, the city also has a sidewalk development program to make walking safe and convenient, and is to continuing work to improve accessibility at bus stops. Currently, 75 per cent of the city’s bus stops are accessible.

A variety of other initiatives are underway, including making the driving landscape more senior-friendly by utilizing larger street signs, as well as the Surrey Fire Service Homesafe program, through which seniors can have smoke alarms installed absolutely free.

But there’s much work to be done, Steele said. She acknowledged that transportation is a huge issue for seniors in Surrey.

“We will be introducing in the next year or so, all being well and the grants coming in, we’re going to be doing indepth transportation symposiums. So seniors know where the transportation is, they know how to use it, they can give us information,” she said, adding the city’s LRT plans would serve seniors well.

“When they can go from Guildford all the way down King George Boulevard to 72nd and connect with buses to go to Delta, White Rock and out to Langley. That’s a huge seniors-friendly form of transportation.”

Another issue the city is zeroing in on is elder abuse, which Steele knows about all too well from her time working at Public Guardian and Trustee.

“Abuse takes many, many forms. From financial abuse to self-neglect to some physical abuse, verbal abuse, isolation, the list goes on. Those are big challenges to face. Those are provincial challenges, city challenges, national challenges,” Steele noted. “They’re huge problems for seniors.”

The city’s forums zero in on the problem – both on how to recognize when an issue arises and what to do about it.

A video called A Life for Ellen is often screened at the sessions about a woman who fell and broke her hip. She was then released from hospital into her daughter’s care.

Ellen was then isolated from her friends, didn’t receive her mail, had no access to her bank account, and in the meantime her daughter and son-in-law sold her house and bought themselves a home on Vancouver Island.

“Unfortunately Ellen’s story is not an isolated story – it happens all the time,” Steele said, which is why the city focuses on arming seniors with education and spreading awareness, in the hopes of preventing these situations.

In the past, Steele has talked about looking at a “Golden Girls” living model, often seen in the U.S., and involves several seniors living in a house together. It’s one way to avoid isolation, she noted.

All in all, Steele says she does the work she does because this is her city and she wants to create a better future.

“I’m going to be there, and a lot of us are going to be there. So we want it to look more like it’s looking now and a lot different than it did years ago. Seniors should have access, they should be commonplace on the streets, they should be into all of the city hubs and the various places. It should be just a natural transition. Lots more seniors housing where they can age in place – go in as an independent and work your way through the system so you don’t lose your friends and neighbours. Accessibility to transportation, all of that kind of stuff should be commonplace,” she said.

“We want people to live in Surrey and know it’s a great place for seniors to live,” Steele said. “They are the major thrust of our population.”