Grey Matters: Maintaining good health into golden years


Before I took up advocacy, I advised companies about employee wellness.

When a company was considering a wellness program, it inevitably focused on the folks with the greatest health risks as the source of the greatest potential savings. After all, an overeater, heavy drinker or chain smoker will cost a company more in sick days and sub-par productivity than their healthier co-workers.

But a company’s biggest return actually comes from keeping healthy people healthy. It’s far more costly to coach and support someone to ditch an unhealthy behaviour than to keep them from adopting it in the first place.

This is an important insight for a company seeking to minimize its number of at-risk employees, but it’s equally applicable to a country seeking to minimize its number of vulnerable seniors.

There is currently a lot of focus on vulnerable seniors — and that is well and good. But just like the payback from keeping healthy employees healthy, far greater gains are to be had by ensuring Canadians enter their golden years in good physical and financial shape — and stay that way — rather than by waiting for problems and patching up the pieces.

We do need programs to provide vulnerable seniors with direct relief like supportive housing, community programming and income support. But these are band-aids; patch-ups that could have been avoided, or at least minimized, if we had the structures and systems in place to encourage individuals to become and remain physically fit and financially secure.

If we are committed to keeping older Canadians healthy, we need walkable cities where frail elders can cross streets without lights changing against them, and plenty of washrooms and benches to ensure everyone can enjoy the streets and parks in their communities.

We need building codes that make accessible housing the default option — not just a luxury for those who can afford to custom build or renovate. Codes must require a walk in-shower, and access for strollers and scooters alike, in every new home. All multi-storey dwellings should have large closets built on top of each other so elevators can be installed as we age in place.

We need first-class transit so that losing a licence doesn’t mean losing our quality of life.

We need incentives to keep people in the workforce longer — like Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Old Age Security (OAS) payments that rise not just to age 70, but for every month someone delays retirement.

We need workplace pension plan reform so employees working past 65 are not precluded from continuing to grow their pensions, as happens with some plans, and we need CPP reform so that all people can work past 65 and continue to benefit from making CPP contributions without having to begin taking their CPP pensions.

We need Registered Retirement Income Fund (RRIF) reform so people who work past 71 aren’t hit with a double whammy of tax on income and on forced RRIF withdrawals, and we need to abolish or significantly change mandatory RRIF withdrawal rates to reflect current life expectancies so people’s savings don’t run out before their lives do.

We need products like deferred annuities to protect us from outliving our savings and principles like best-interest standards for our financial advisers to protect our savings from being walloped with excess fees.

And we need income support for caregivers so those who provide the $26 billion in unpaid care to friends and loved ones every year don’t end up financially destitute.

As the Chinese proverb states, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the second-best time is now. Let’s begin today.

The Federal Government has recently consulted on solutions to support vulnerable seniors. Check out CARP’s recommendations at

Wanda Morris will be speaking on Nov. 22 at 1:30 p.m. at Triwood (in N.W. Calgary). For more information or to register, please contact

Grey Matters is a weekly column by Wanda Morris, the VP of Advocacy for CARP, a 300,000 member national, non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for financial security, improved health-care for Canadians as we age. Missed a week? Past columns by Wanda and other key CARP contributors can be found at