When Bonita Beatty went to visit her 80-year-old mother in her seniors’ home, she found her sobbing, crying out, “They’re going to take away my kids!”
Stuck in a dementia-induced nightmare, Beatty’s mother relived fears from her past, like the 60s Scoop, when Indigenous children were forcibly placed in residential schools. Seniors with dementia commonly regress to earlier periods of their lives. While childhood memories can be comforting for some, for Indigenous elders the past can be filled with fear.
With Canadian seniors now outnumbering children under 14, there’s been much discussion about elder care in our country. Rarely talked about are the unique challenges facing First Nations, Inuit and Métis elders, and the burden their care places on their already vulnerable families.
“We want what everyone wants—for our seniors to be able to finish their lives with comfort and dignity,” says Beatty, who has been advocating for Indigenous seniors for the last 25 years as a civil servant and academic.
Experts say that familiar environments—including food, language and cultural customs—are important for a senior’s mental health. Yet few reserves and few Indigenous communities have their own seniors’ homes. Many communities struggle even to provide the basic in-home nursing and support services available in Canadian cities. To find care for their beloved parents and grandparents, families must travel far from home. For Beatty’s mother, the closest available facility, in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, was four hours away from their remote First Nation reserve, Deschambault Lake.
A big move can strain the mental health of any senior. For Indigenous elders, relocating to a strange place can reawaken traumatic childhood memories.
Such moves also place a financial strain on Indigenous families.
In her mother’s final year, Beatty estimates she spent $25,000 on care, including transportation from her home to the distant nursing facility for visits. Still, Beatty says that she was lucky. As an Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatoon, she could absorb the costs without sinking. It would be impossible for most Indigenous families across Canada—one quarter of whom live below the poverty line—to spend that much on care.
Canada’s health services, including senior care, fall under provincial jurisdiction, while Indigenous issues are the responsibility of the federal government. Much like Indigenous children in the child welfare system, elders find themselves stuck in limbo while governments debate who pays for services like medical transportation and in-home care.
“In our country we nickel and dime our seniors,” laments Beatty.
When five-year-old Jordan Anderson died in hospital from a rare muscular disorder in 2005, caught in a governmental tug-of-war over who would cover his medical costs, the tragedy led to the adoption of ‘Jordan’s Principle.’ It states that Indigenous children should have the same access to health services as non-Indigenous children. Today, Beatty believes it’s time to extend the spirit of Jordan’s Principle to the aged.
Canada’s National Seniors Day is October 1, an opportunity to challenge your local election candidates about their plans for a national seniors’ strategy, and how that strategy will accommodate Indigenous issues.
Every senior citizen deserves the chance spend their final years in comfort and dignity.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.