Canada’s population is getting older. According to Statistics Canada, seniors aged 65 and over makeup 18% of the population as of 2021, and that number is expected to rise to 23-25% by 2040. This demographic shift towards an older population presents challenges for Canada’s healthcare system that will require adaptations in how we deliver and fund healthcare.
The Strain on Healthcare Resources
As people age, they tend to require more health services. Older patients often have multiple chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis that require regular monitoring and treatment. The management of chronic diseases now accounts for 55% of healthcare spending in Canada. An aging population means more demand for chronic disease management and preventative care.
Seniors are also more likely to be admitted to hospitals for illnesses that younger patients could be treated for outside the hospital system. They have longer average hospital stays and are more likely to be readmitted. This increased utilization of hospitals and healthcare resources strains the system.
Long-term care is another area greatly impacted by an aging population. As seniors experience declining health and cannot live independently, demand rises for nursing homes, assisted living, and home care. Canada already struggles with long wait lists and shortages in these areas, a problem that will be compounded as the population ages.
The High Costs of Caring for Seniors
Treating older patients is costlier for our healthcare system. Seniors account for almost 46% of provincial and territorial health spending in Canada. Per capita health spending for Canadians aged 65-79 is $7,983, over five times higher than spending for those under 65. For those over 80, the average is $16,442.
Several factors contribute to the higher costs of senior care. Treating chronic conditions often requires specialist visits, tests, home care services, and medications on an ongoing basis. As well, since many seniors have multiple complex health issues, their treatments can become intensive and expensive. Hospitalizations that may have been avoidable with better primary and home care are also costly.
The implications of increased health spending per senior will become more pronounced as the large baby boom generation enters old age. Budgets will be further strained as a smaller working-age population has to fund healthcare for far more seniors.
Adapting the Healthcare System
To prepare for the aging population, Canada’s healthcare system needs strategic changes in care delivery, infrastructure, workforce planning, access to technology, and increased funding.
One key will be shifting the focus towards more home care and community services so that seniors can retain independence and avoid hospital visits as long as possible. Healthcare teams should take a more holistic, patient-centered approach to care for seniors, with better coordination between primary care doctors, specialists, home care providers, caregivers and families.
New infrastructure like more long-term care facilities and senior-friendly affordable housing units will be needed. So will age-friendly transportation options and access to assisted devices and technology that can support independent living.
Healthcare workforce planning and training is crucial to ensure we have enough senior specialists, nurses, personal support workers and occupational therapists who understand senior care. These workers must be available across all care settings, from hospitals to home care.
Governments will need to adequately fund senior care to handle growing demand. Systemic issues like long waitlists and staff shortages in-home care and long-term care need addressing. More investment is also required in disease prevention and health promotion for seniors.
Our healthcare system faces authentic challenges from Canada’s aging population. But with foresight, adaptation and commitment to improving senior care, we can build a system that provides high-quality, accessible and affordable healthcare for everyone as we age.
Key Facts on Canada’s Aging Population:
- Seniors 65+ are projected to reach 23-25% of the population by 2040.
- 55% of healthcare spending goes towards chronic disease management.
- Seniors account for almost 46% of healthcare spending.
- Per capita health spending is 5x higher for seniors than younger Canadians.
- Home care, long-term care and assisted living are facing shortages.
- Better planning is needed to ensure adequate senior healthcare services.
- Systemic issues like long waitlists need to be addressed.
- More funding and workforce training for senior care will be required.
- The focus should shift towards preventative care and home-based services.
Statistics Canada. “Canada’s population estimates: Age and sex” The Daily. 2020. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200525/dq200525a-eng.htm
Canadian Institute of Health Information. “Health Spending.” 2021. https://www.cihi.ca/en/health-spending
Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. “The Fiscal Sustainability of Health Care Spending in Canada” 2019. https://www.pbo-dpb.gc.ca/web/default/files/Documents/Reports/2019/HealthSpending/Health_spending_EN.pdf
Greg Shaw and Morris Barer. “How the aging population is driving health care spending in Canada.” Healthcare Quarterly. Vol 22, No. 1, 2019. https://www.longwoods.com/content/25957/healthcare-quarterly/how-the-aging-population-is-driving-health-care-spending-in-canada