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Seniors in Canada

A Portrait of Seniors in Canada

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A Portrait of Seniors in Canada: Introduction

By Martin Turcotte and Grant Schellenberg

Aging of the population is probably one of the most discussed and debated subjects in Canada today. While some analysts forecast the worst in terms of costs to public services and labour market shortages, others argue that Canada is well-equipped to face this social and demographic phenomenon - and that people shouldn't worry that much about the growing percentage of seniors in the population. (For an introduction to these debates, see for example Chapell et al., 2003; Cheal et al. 2002; Gee, 2000).

Some of the chapters in A Portrait of Seniors in Canada will provide information that will feed these debates and discussions. However, the objective of this publication is not to determine whether Canadians should or should not worry about an aging society. This report is mainly about the situation of the current generation of seniors, as full-fledged members of society. Specifically, the goal of this report is to draw an up-to-date portrait of the general well-being of seniors, in absolute terms, in comparison with previous cohorts of seniors and in comparison with persons of younger ages.1

Several challenges associated with portraying the general well-being of seniors should be noted. Firstly the population of seniors, i.e. the population of individuals aged 65 and over, is a very heterogeneous population in terms of health status, cultural origins, financial situations, living arrangements, and so on. This reality necessarily imposes some simplifications and generalizations when discussing the well-being of seniors as a group. Secondly, there are no consensual definitions of concepts such as well-being and wellness; therefore, there is no consensus either on how to measure or to quantify it. What is well-being? What contributes to it? Is health more or less important to well-being than other factors like financial security or social inclusion? What about other factors? More generally, is it possible to determine, from an external point of view, that the "level" of wellness of an individual or a group of persons is greater than that of another one?

This report will not provide answers to these questions. However, it will try to put together many pieces of the puzzle, in order to provide the most complete and the most accurate portrait of seniors' well-being as possible. This introduction sets the stage by explaining the conceptual framework and the definitions chosen to guide the analysis and the organization of this book.

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To be or not to be a senior?

There are ongoing debates about the definition of "senior". According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, a senior citizen is "an elderly person, especially a person over 65". And an elderly is, according to the same reference source, "rather old; past middle age".

These definitions, not so precise but often taken for granted, can naturally be contested. Some authors argue that since life expectancy is now about 80 years and that many persons outlive that age, 65 years old cannot be considered as "old" anymore (e.g. Posner, 1995). Given that the "golden years" has a very different meaning than it had just 30 years ago, some argue that the whole concept should be redefined. For example, Denton and Spencer (2002) proposed that the population of seniors could be delimited by using a certain number of years before death, instead of using 65 years and older as the standard marker for old age. The age at which people become seniors would then be determined by life expectancy at a particular moment.

Trying to find objective definitions of "old", "senior" or "elderly" is unrealistic. The new definitions proposed by experts are not getting consensual approval at the moment. For the purpose of this report, the usual threshold of 65 years old was therefore chosen to delimit the population of seniors. While this choice has some limitations, it has many advantages.

First, using the age marker of 65 is probably one of the most practical ways of defining the senior population from a methodological point of view, as well as the most commonly used procedure (Chappell et al., 2003). With the current sources of statistical data, using alternative definitions would be either very cumbersome or impossible. Secondly, from a conceptual point of view, defining seniors as individuals aged 65 and over also has the advantage that most persons recognize 65 years as the age at which individuals become senior citizens. Social institutions also recognize this as age 65 is recognized as the "normal" age of retirement and is the age at which individuals are entitled to receive full pension benefits in Canada, even if many people retire or receive full pension benefits from their former employers before that age.

Over the coming years, especially as the first Baby Boomers turn 65 years old, it is possible that a new definition of "senior" will replace the current one. What it generally means to be a senior, for seniors themselves as well as for society in general, could go through an important redefinition. However, until then we will keep, for the purpose of this report, the most common definition of senior -- seniors are all persons aged 65 and over.

That being said, we will use as much as possible more specific age groups in the presentation of statistical information, i.e. 65 to 74 years old, 75 to 84 and 85 and over. The life circumstances and the situations of seniors vary significantly among these three age groups. As commonly perceived by most individuals, and as will become rather clear in this report, the characteristics of younger seniors aged 65 to 74 are in many cases dramatically different than those of persons aged 85 and over. While this publication wishes to make a general profile of seniors, it will try to account for this heterogeneity as much as possible.

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What is well-being and wellness? A conceptual framework

As stated above, the goal of this report is to provide a statistical portrait of seniors' well-being and wellness. However, well-being and wellness means different things to different people and societies. This report does not propose a new conceptualization of well-being, nor does it impose one particularly restrictive view of it. Instead, the analysis relies on many indicators which are commonly identified by social science researchers, health practitioners and other professionals, as well as by people in general, as having an impact on seniors' well-being.

An extensive number of these indicators or factors have been enumerated in the National Framework on Aging, which has strongly influenced the organization and the content of this publication. This analytical tool was developed by the Committee of Officials for Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Seniors, after an important series of consultations with seniors, seniors' organizations and government officials were completed across all jurisdictions in Canada. It can therefore be considered as representative of a broad range of points of view in Canada.

The vision of this national framework is that "Canada, a society for all ages, promotes the well-being and contributions of older people in all aspects of life". Recognizing that wellness might mean different things to different persons, the framework identifies five core values which are said to be highly desirable outcomes for the vast majority of seniors. They are: dignity, independence, participation, fairness and security.

Many important elements are identified as favouring the realization of these core values in seniors' lives. These elements have been classified into three broad categories and are considered, in the National Framework on Aging, as the three "pillars of seniors' wellness". They are:

  1. Health, wellness and security, which includes health and wellness, safety and security and income security
  2. Continuous learning, work and participation in society, which includes work and retirement, age discrimination and negative stereotypes, social participation and ethnocultural diversity.
  3. Supporting and caring in the community, which includes living arrangements, transportation, social isolation and loneliness, family/informal caregiving and seniors in Northern/remote Canada

Naturally, some indicators will contribute more to some individuals' well-being than to others. However for most seniors, many of these factors will have a role in their overall well-being. This publication is structured around these three pillars of well-being.

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Structure of the book

Chapter 1 of this report provides contextual information about the population of seniors. How many seniors are there in Canada? How many will there be in the years ahead? What are their basic demographic characteristics? Where do they live? Although this chapter is less directly connected to the framework used for the rest of the publication, it provides valuable information about seniors as a population in Canadian society.

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are all divided into a number of sections, but each chapter is based on one of the three pillars of seniors' wellness presented above. In Chapter 2, which is entitled Health, wellness and security, information is provided about physical and mental health, financial security and security from crime. Chapter 3, Continuous Learning, work and participation in society, is divided into three sections, and presents information on labour force participation, training, change in the educational profile of seniors and retirement. In Chapter 4, Supporting and caring in the community, a wide variety of data are presented in six chapters: living arrangements and family, social networks, social participation and engagement (including volunteering), care, political participation and values.

Chapter 5 will add other relevant information on factors which can be related to well-being, but which are less easily classifiable within the framework; these include leisure activities, computer use and religiosity. In Chapters 6 and 7, the three pillars of well-being will be used again to compare the well-being of aboriginal seniors (Chapter 6) and immigrant seniors (Chapter 7) with the senior population as a whole.

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Possible data gaps in the portrait of seniors

Abstract concepts, such as values, are sometime difficult to capture with statistical data. Consequently, it is impossible to include information about all the factors of well-being and wellness identified by the National Framework on Aging. For example, it is not possible to provide direct information about seniors' level of dignity or level of independence. Direct information will mostly be provided about factors potentially contributing to the actualization of these important values for seniors, such as their capacity to age at home, involvement in significant social relationships, and so on.

It should also be noted that some aspects of seniors' lives which are not included in the National Framework on Aging but which could also contribute to the well-being of many seniors, may have been excluded from this analysis. However, all efforts have been made to present a portrait that as comprehensive and complete as possible.

As a final note to this introduction, the fact that more pages are devoted to some factors than to others is not an indicator of their relative importance to seniors' well-being. To rank the importance of various factors is far beyond the objectives of this report, and is a task that will be left to the reader. One reason why more pages are allowed to some subjects than to others is simply that data are more easily available. That said, some factors which are widely recognized as being critical determinants of well-being for most people, such as health status, do receive their fair share of coverage in the report.


  1. This publication is the fourth edition of A Portrait of Seniors in Canada. While its form has slightly changed from the previous edition (released in 1999), the fourth edition updates many data that were presented in it.

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