Chapter 8: Who’s Zooming Who?

The myth of the looming  health-care crisis.

“Let’s just start cutting and see what happens.”

Over the course of writing The Zoomer Philosophy, I’ve received one set of reader comments that has intrigued me and which I’ve come to identify, pardon the yiddishism, as the Chorus of Oy. “Oy,” the chorus runs, “Give us a rest, please! Stop telling us to keep on keeping on! Stop pursuing us to get politically active and create the Zoomer Inclusive Party! Stop recruiting us as volunteers in your Zoomer Army! Stop trying to convince us to spend enough and give enough that we die broke! We’re tired! We just want to sit in the living room and veg out a little. We’ve earned the right to be quiet. Besides, everything hurts.”

I’m not unsympathetic to the Chorus of oy; it strikes a chord with most people of a certain age, especially those of us who’ve joined what a friend of mine calls the Pain-of-the-Day Club. “Every morning when I get up,” she says, “I sit in bed for a second and wonder, ‘okay, what’s going to hurt today?’ ” There can be something therapeutic about surrendering to a little pleasurable kvetching and krechtzing about our health. It’s a time-honoured ritual. Therefore, I hereby grant all of you a period of grace in which to sit back and moan luxuriously about your weariness and your aches and pains. Starting now.

Finished? Good. Because that’s about all the time we can afford. When it comes to issues of health and wellness for today’s Seniors, there is a crisis that requires our immediate attention: the belief that an aging “tsunami” of Zoomers represents a financial catastrophe in the making. The supposed problems are the health-care and pension burdens we are about to impose on succeeding generations, as they struggle to pay for our huge, decaying demographic. This belief has achieved the status of gospel. Open any newspaper, walk into any bookstore, type “Boomer” and “Crisis” into Google and you can’t avoid dire predictions of the sky falling.

But it turns out to be more illusion than gospel. What appears to be intuitively obvious is not backed up by a lot of empirical evidence. So allow me to spread a little doubt. The health-care tsunami thesis is based on a simple equation. At roughly the same time that our massive generation begins to cut back from work in a serious way, we’ll also begin taking up a disproportionate percentage of the health-care budget. The problem is exacerbated, goes the argument, because there are so many of us and because we’ll very likely live longer than our own parents did. If life expectancy were still 65, as it was in the early 1940s, it would be one thing; but life expectancy is now approaching 81, which means an extra 20 years or so on what the theory sees as a “health-care dole.”  Thus, Zoomers are destined to take far more out of the public coffers than we put in. And because succeeding generations are considerably smaller than we Boomers/Zoomers, where in 2005 there were four workers “supporting” each retiree, by 2031 there will be only two. Ergo, we will no longer represent a net gain, but a net drain.

Let’s start with the first half of the equation: how much will we actually contribute to society as we become a generation of Seniors and elders and what I call The Immortals (100-plus)? In the year 2009, Canadians 45 years of age and older (our Zoomer baseline) numbered approximately 14 million, or about 42 per cent of the total population of 34 million. These millions of Canadians made up 53 per cent of all tax-filers. What’s often overlooked in discussions of the senior burden is the fact that most retirees and pensioners continue to pay tax. And this comes after working lifetimes already spent investing a considerable portion of their own earnings into RRSPs and supplemental pension plans, so they can enjoy the “privilege” of withdrawing their own now-taxable funds in their later years. By the year 2031, it’s projected that there will be about 19 million Canadians age 45 and older, or 49 per cent of a total projected population of 39 million. By extrapolation, Zoomers at that point will comprise 63 per cent of all Canadian tax-filers.

Unless we all receive tax refunds, the model suggests that we will be paying for the lion’s share of government ex- penditures in 2031 — but we’ll still be barely half of the population. Not only will we be paying for ourselves, covering all our own costs, but we might well be helping cover health-care costs for the next population waves as well. Such is the power of the Zoomer “tsunami.” 

But wait, won’t Zoomers consume far more than simply their proportional amount of health care? Medical care for the aging, and especially the frail, including doctor visits, hospital stays and procedures, and public caregiving costs in both nursing home and home settings, means that aging Canadians will incur an exponentially higher health-care cost than other age groups. Well, while it’s true that the health-care cost is definitely heavier for seniors, the degree by which it’s heavier appears to be far smaller than predictions would have us believe. According to the latest Statistics Canada reports, 90 per cent of Canadians age 65 and over have vis- ited a medical doctor “in the past 12 months.” This may seem high, until you consider that 82.8 per cent of Canadians between 45 and 64 have also seen doctors in the past year; not to mention 80 per cent of 35- to 44-year-olds, 78.2 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds and, no surprise, at least 85 per cent of all children under 12.

So yes, the argument can be made that seniors see doctors more often and for longer appointments than younger people in any given year — there have been stories in the press of family physicians rejecting new patients if they’re elderly — but the  difference in time taken isn’t that much and, going back to that tax-filing rate, it would appear seniors are paying in full for the extra service.

But wait again. Where approximately eight per cent of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 44 will see a health professional about mental health issues in the coming year, only 2.4 per cent of people aged 65 and over will. Whether or not this means we’re four times saner than our kids and grandkids, we’re definitely costing society less here and  also refuting the “depressed elderly” stereotype.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence against the tsunami health-crisis thesis is the answer to this simplest of all questions: “How do you feel?” Pose this question to a group of 40-year-olds, as was done in the 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey, and 92 percent will describe their physical health as “good,” “very good” or “excellent.” Ask a group of 60-year-olds the same question, and 83 per cent will give you the same good-to-excellent response; 70-year-olds — 78 per cent; 80-year-olds — 67 per cent. If this seems like some old people gilding the lily by overestimating their actual physical hardiness, another table in that same survey, which used objective medical professional assessment as opposed to self-assessment, found that more than 70 per cent of 70-year-old Canadians were in “very good or perfect functional health.” Even 80 year-olds topped the 50 percent mark.

Fact is — the Chorus of Oy and the Pain-of-the-Day Club notwithstanding — the majority of older Canadians today are healthy, thanks to the mainstreaming of fitness, proper diet and nutrition, and other wellness practices. Most debilitating conditions and catastrophic pathologies don’t occur till after the age of 80 and, increasingly, not till after 85. Regrettably, this profile doesn’t jibe with media-driven popular perception. The tsunami scenario sees the Zoomer demographic, with our large numbers and increased life expectancy, as a group of people who are destined to spend most of their time simply staying alive and costing everybody else money. Well, while “staying alive” was a catchy refrain during the disco era, just staying alive is no way to live! And it’s not the way we do live! At the risk of calling Zoomers to the barricades again, I think it’s incumbent on us to set the record straight about the “threat” our aging bodies represent to future generations. We don’t wish to inundate anyone under a sea of our health care-inflicted debt, and chances are very good that we won’t. Old age isn’t a disease any more than infancy is. Most Zoomers are active, contributing members of society, and we’ll be that way for the lion’s share of our aging years. Just staying alive is not our preference; living well till we die is. Complaining about our aches and pains occasionally and sitting on the sofa is undoubtedly our right — as some of you have pointed out —but so is being treated as something other than the enemy.

So spread the word: when it comes to health and wellness, we’re not just part of the problem, we’re actually part of the solution. We might even be worth more to the world alive than dead.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.