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Cost of living hitting seniors hard

32 per cent unable to afford basic necessities, including medicine

Newfoundand and Labrador Seniors Advocate Susan Walsh. — Submitted photo

By Jaymie White

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

WEST COAST — On Thursday, Jan. 11, the Office of the Official Opposition issued a release about the recent increase at the gas pump, which took place on Jan. 9 as a result of the Liberal Clean Fuel Standard which saw fuel prices rise a further 5.40 cents per litre for gasoline and 6.02 cents per litre for diesel. According to the information the office obtained from the Parliamentary Budget Officer, these regulations will mean another 17 cents per litre added to gasoline costs and 16 cents for diesel by 2030, an increase PC Party Leader, Tony Wakeham, is vehemently opposed to.

“I think at a time when Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are struggling with the cost of living, increasing taxes on fuel is not the way to go. The Furey/Trudeau Liberals, they continue to add increased taxes on people at a time when we already know that people are struggling with the high cost of living. So I think it's not only inappropriate, they should be looking at other ways to provide clean energy,” said Wakeham.

“I've always used the line of let's use technology taxation when it comes to improving our carbon footprint. We are all concerned about climate change and the impacts that the carbon footprint has on that, but I think what we have to find is ways to take advantage of what we have to offer here in this province and across the country when it comes to opportunities to improve that footprint.”

The distance between communities outside of St. John’s makes it impossible for residents to avail of public transportation to save money.

“We have an extremely large geographic area in our province, and we're not blessed with a lot of public transportation. So people don't have any option but to use their vehicles. Whether it's going to work, whether it's going to get groceries, whether it's going to visit their family doctor or primary care provider, whether it's taking your kids to any kind of an event, most people, especially in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, that's the only option you have,” said Wakeham. “So this impacts us significantly more in this province.”

Wakeham referenced the report, ‘What We Heard: Engagement with Seniors, Family Members and/or Caregivers, and Service Providers’, released by the Office of the Seniors’ Advocate NL, where it was discovered, through extensive surveys and research, that 32 per cent of seniors in the province are unable to meet their basic needs due to the high cost of living.

“We've also seen a 44 per cent increase in food bank usage in our province since 2019. These are real statistics. These are not my statistics. These are statistics provided by the seniors advocate and others, and these are real people that are being impacted,” said Wakeham.

“And so as a government, you have a responsibility to help people, not to hurt them, and introducing taxes like carbon tax and sugar tax and other forms of taxation is taking money out of people's pockets that they need to help actually pay for their cost of living, and it takes money out of the economy that people can't afford to maybe go to a restaurant anymore, and what we're seeing is people are struggling even to go to the grocery store and pay for their food.”

Seniors’ Advocate for Newfoundland and Labrador, Susan Walsh, said the information obtained in the report came from a full consultation process.

“We had 15 formal consultations in 15 different communities throughout the province. Plus, we did two online surveys, online consultations, which were accessible, and through the in-person sessions — we had 390 seniors who attended in person — and through the online survey, we had just over 900, 913, seniors reply to our online survey, and then we had some family members, and we had some caregivers, so it brought us over 1,000. We had over 1,087 surveys completed —which was really unheard of from a survey perspective — but we worked really hard to get voices of seniors into those surveys,” explained Walsh.

“We did everything to try to ensure that people who didn't have access to technology or to the Internet or whatever, plus that low-income seniors who wished to have input, could have input. So we had a great response rate. Seniors in this province want to have a voice, they are a very strong group who know that they've done everything right to build this province, and now it's their time to receive some benefits to help them as they age.”

Those benefits don’t always meet the need, so the hope was to uncover where the disparities lie.

“What came out of all of that was a really remarkable finding that I don't think anyone would have really guessed at initially. We found that seniors had two major priorities. The first one was access to acute or primary health care was lacking. They just couldn't access a doctor. They couldn't get the pills renewed. When they went into a doctor, they could only talk about two things or one thing, and a ton of issues around access to primary health care. No one's surprised by that. Everyone would have known that. We knew that back when we released our report in 2019,” said Walsh.

“But the second thing they said, which they rated equally as important as access to health care, was they could not afford the necessities of life, that the cost of living was impacting their standard of living. They couldn't afford things that they needed, and as a consequence, it was rated equally as important as access to healthcare, which was unheard of because everyone had a belief — and when I say everyone, what I really mean is there is a belief at a government level, provincial and federal — that because seniors receive the OAS and the GIS and some get the CPP, that they are above the poverty line, and as a consequence, they are doing okay financially, and what the research is showing is that, yes, they're above the poverty line, but they're the largest group that is just above the poverty line. So that could be by a dollar, it could be by $10, maybe by $100, but they're just above the poverty line.”

The office cannot make recommendations at the federal level, but they made recommendations at the provincial level.

“The ‘What We Heard’ document outlines numerous things that seniors express concerns about related to housing, health care, transportation and cost of living. We're an office of four people. We’ve got an administrative support person, myself, and two advocacy consultants. We are tiny, so we can't do it all at one time, so we focused in on the cost of living, because frankly, it is so imperative. Another thing they were doing without is prescriptions. They were cutting their pills in half to make them go further. They were doing without medical devices, like if they needed a walker or a cane, all those things. You can imagine the impact that would have on their physical health, but as well on access to community, getting out and socializing, going to the supermarket to get the groceries, if they can't physically do it, if they need a walker or can't afford to get it, transportation,” said Walsh

“But what we will do over the next year or so is we'll be picking up the other components that are in this report that we didn't focus on to see, okay, where do we need to go from here on things like transportation, health care, housing.”

The Office provided twelve recommendations that fall into five main themes: the seniors’ benefit, home support, the cost to access food, the cost to access medical care, and the cost to prevent illness. For example, many seniors would prefer to get their benefit payments bi-weekly instead of monthly, so they are better able to budget their expenses, and an increase in amounts received was also recommended.

“The provincial government would tell you they increased the seniors benefit by 10 per cent in 2022/23, and then by another 5 per cent in 23/24, but when we did the analysis of that, and if you receive the maximum seniors benefit — not everybody does because it's like a sliding scale based on your income — that's only a difference of $200 a year, which probably doesn't even quarter fill your tank now with oil,” said Walsh.

“How can a benefit go up 15 per cent over two years and still only be $200? Because it hadn't received an increase since 2016. That benefit is not indexed to inflation like the federal benefits are, and as a consequence, our recommendations were that that benefit should be indexed and it should keep pace with inflation year over year, and if the inflation goes up, then that benefit goes up, but if inflation goes down, the benefit doesn't get decreased.”

On the west coast specifically, there were certain concerns that were found to be prevalent amongst seniors.

“We heard a lot from seniors on the west coast about the cost of living as it relates to the cost of food, and specifically, they get their cheques once a month, the federal benefits, and that at that time you would sometimes see the suppliers of food ­— grocery stores, corner stores, whoever — supplying it, may not put out any deals. In fact, you might see an increase in some of the costs from what they were used to. They’d pay when their cheques were there, and then two weeks later you would see things go on sale and they don't have the money to uptake the sale prices, and that was expressed to us in a huge way. And the other thing, that two other things that resonate with me from a west coast perspective, we've heard a lot about the cost of wood, that a lot of people years ago were able to go cut their wood, help supplement their income by feeding their furnaces or if they had a wood stove and now they can't cut wood anymore. They might not have family around who could do it for them and they can't afford to pay someone to do it,” said Walsh.

“So that's increasing the cost because now they've got to rely more on their oil or electricity if they've got a supplementary heat supply. And the last one was it was a lot about the distance they have to go if they can't get access.”

For Wakeham, he believes the best way to help all residents of Newfoundland and Labrador, not just seniors, is to do a full-scale review of taxes and programs in the province to ensure they are doing what they’re supposed to do, and to make long-term solutions for future generations, not just react after something has gone wrong.

“There's no long term strategy here. It's simply trying to get past the next election date. And what we shouldn't be doing is thinking simply about the next election. We should be thinking about the next generation and how we keep people here and how we can lower the cost of living for people in our province, and those are the things that matter,” said Wakeham.

“We need to review every single fee and tax that we currently charge — and that's one of the things I've committed to doing when we form government — is reviewing these to make sure that when all of the programs and services that we've put in place, all of our fees and taxes that we have in place, we have to sit down and critically review all of those and make sure that they're doing what they were meant to do, and that hasn't been done. It needs to be done.”

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