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Aging with poverty

Patricia Harrington
Patricia Harrington

Being poor has negative impact on health

Patricia Harrington is executive director at Westford Nursing Home in Port Elgin. She believes it is important to share information on everyday concerns as we age and enjoys promoting these important aspects that will help our older population in aging well. She can be reached by email at westforded@gmail.com or by phone at 506-538-1301.

Having to choose whether you pay your bills or buy medications or food is tough; and it’s even harder when you’re an elderly person on a fixed income. Some years ago I was a health board member in the Prospect Bay area of Nova Scotia. This volunteer experience really opened my eyes to all the factors that influence our health (these factors are now called the Social Determinants of Health). Poverty is one of these determinants. Some years ago I was also fortunate to hear Robert Wright, a worker/sociologist who promotes system changes through policy and advocacy, speak about poverty. Being poor has a negative impact on health and that is why the social programs in our government system work to help bring equity to all, in an effort to offset that negative influence. Programs such as those where government (in New Brunswick it is the Department of Social Development) helps to pay portions of housing rents, which in turn provides housing that is based on a person’s income. Another example is, in New Brunswick we have government subsidized funding for senior care (such as in special care and nursing homes) unlike other countries, or parts of our own country, where when you are too old to work and cannot afford to pay for rent or care, you can end up living on the street.

Poverty results from circumstances that may have been created by bad luck, poor health, poor life choices or just the general view of a society. Robert Wright’s point that I heard very loudly is that if people do not have the means to meet the basic needs of life, they are stuck. As a society do we watch them sink, throw them a rope, push them out further only to see them get stuck again; or do we try to figure out a better way? In fact, there really are a lot of giving people who care and ‘throw ropes’, pushing, pulling and shouting out that help is available.

Poverty affects all ages and it is with all ages that it can be better addressed. Do I have the answer? No, only the question, but it is a start. Aging well requires all the things we talk about, such as healthy eating, having a positive outlook, getting exercise and so on. But how can a person have these things when they are hungry but don’t have the money to buy food, pay their rent, power and heating bill or buy medications? After hearing Robert Wright speak, a few thoughts started rattling around in my mind. I certainly do not expect everyone to agree with me, in fact Robert himself may not even agree, but that is what these types of columns are for, to share thoughts on topics and in my case, thoughts on topics that help us to age well, or not age well. So here goes…

Years ago we did not have the social services that we have in place today to subsidize rent or care. I often think about how some churches practice ‘tithing’ , giving a portion of their income to support the work of the church, and how at one time churches were the support that created our social safety net. It was the church that provided food, shelter, and a general helping hand when times were tough. Employment Insurance did not exist and neither did Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement and the Canada Pension Plan; support occurred through the parishioners, clergy and neighbours. There are still remnants in many communities of the huge part the churches played in assisting in society. Just look at how many churches there were, even in small communities where even small churches had big congregations. And today, if you were to check any list of caring organizations you would see that churches are still a huge support that gives people a helping hand when it comes to making ends meet in times of struggle.

But sadly, the influence of the church has decreased over time. A word from your minister or priest cannot get you a job, keep you in school, or in many instances influence what may be seen as bad behaviour, where at one time it may have. And the divide between the classes of society was not nearly so big then as it is today. In fact, before the days of indoor plumbing most people were in the same boat – rich or poor, most people grew their own food and it was only the few well-off citizens who could afford to hire others to do their gardening, cooking and cleaning, which in turn provided employment opportunities for others.

I believe that today there are many people who don’t know how to grow a vegetable garden, or even how to cook food from scratch. This lack of knowledge and interest in preparing and eating fresh food also has a huge negative impact on our health. I really like the idea of inter-generational exchanges where older people who have the knowledge and skills, share it with the next generation. By working together and being supportive of others, we can create a healthier world that supports healthy aging.

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