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Age and intersectionality

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As a result of the Commission's new policy work on intersectionality, it is becoming increasingly clear that human rights work has to be informed by the social realities in which people live - realities that frequently take on quantitatively new dimensions when examined through the light of intersecting or overlapping grounds.

Recognizing that persons experience discrimination in unique ways, it is difficult to isolate particular grounds or types of economic disadvantage, but demographic trends and the literature identify two particular areas that merit focus here: the two groups that stand out as experiencing unique issues based on the intersection of age with other aspects of their identity are elderly women and elderly persons who are disabled.  Obviously, older women with disabilities are especially vulnerable as a result of the combined effect of advanced age, severity and occurrence of disability and the likelihood that many have not spent a lifetime in the workforce and therefore have limited income sources.

Elderly Women

For several reasons, including their longevity and their socio-economic status, aging has a disproportionate effect on women.

Women make up a relatively large proportion of seniors. In 1998, 57% of all people aged 65 and over were female, whereas women made up only 51% of those aged 55-64, and 50% or less of those in age groups below age 55. The share of the senior population accounted for by women is even higher in the older age ranges. Indeed, in 1998, women made up 70% of all persons aged 85 and older and 60% of those aged 75-84, while they made up 54% of people aged 65-74.  Consistent with these statistics, among seniors, women have a considerably longer life expectancy than men.[32] They are, therefore, more likely to access social goods such as health care and nursing homes or similar institutions[33].

With respect to their socio-economic status, levels of income and labour force participation indicate that older women may face unique human rights issues.  For example, many social programs which were designed at a time when the workforce was primarily male and which are neutral on their face may adversely impact on women. Old Age Security  (OAS) provides a universal indexed grant to all seniors over 65 and may be supplemented by the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS).  Full OAS and GIS benefits may assist married seniors to approach the poverty line, but for single seniors, the benefits are well below the poverty line. Since women make up a disproportionate share of senior singles, especially in the oldest groups, these programs have been unable to lift older women out of the structural poverty caused by these factors.[34]

Canada Pension Plan (CPP) benefits are tied to contributions made by workers and their employers based on a percentage of average earnings.  As a result, women, who tend to work in lower-paying jobs and for a shorter period of time, receive significantly less in CPP benefits than their male counterparts[35]. Furthermore, reports indicate that the increased emphasis on private pension plans and tax-assisted savings for retirement, ie. Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs), also adversely affects women.  Women tend to work in sectors where employer pension plans are not available.  Moreover, they earn considerably less than men and have less discretionary income to contribute to RRSPs[36].

While these areas are within federal jurisdiction, they have implications in the provincial sector, since community-based services and supports must be in place to "make up the difference".  For example, affordable housing is likely to be of particular concern to single elderly women.

Elderly Persons with Disabilities

In 1991, about half of all Canadians aged sixty-five and over had a disability.[37] For persons who have had disabilities for all or most of their lives, aging aggravates chronic patterns of poverty and social discrimination, whereas persons whose disabilities appear later in life can experience sudden and devastating changes in lifestyle and living standards.[38]

The most common disabilities facing older persons are those related to mobility (74.2%) and agility (65%), followed by hearing loss (41.8%), visual impediments (26.5%), and speech-related disabilities (8.7%).[39]

Data indicates that disability rates are a clear function of age[40]. As the population ages, this correlation between age and disability means that by the year 2010 there will be a significant increase in the number of working age Canadians with some form of disability[41]. As well, there will be an increase in the number of retired individuals who experience some sort of disability[42].

The projected increase in the numbers of persons who will have some form of disability reinforces the importance of policy work with respect to this ground.

Moreover, these figures have critical implications for specific work being conducted at this time by the Commission in the area of disability.

First, transportation has been characterized as the "passport to independent living" for many older persons.  This is especially true for those with disabilities. The review of mass transit accessibility that was recently conducted by the Commission is therefore especially relevant to older persons who require barrier free design to get to public transit, to stand on public vehicles when moving and to get on and off. 

In addition, some older persons may have disabilities that arise from respiratory problems and related stamina insufficiencies, but may not qualify for para-transit services because those services may not recognize these types of non-visible disabilities.[43]

Second, planned revisions to the Guidelines on Assessing Accommodation Requirements for Persons with Disabilities and other policy work in the area of disability will have significant implications for older persons. For these reasons, the importance of maintaining a high standard of undue hardship that is supported by the legislation should be restated in any policy statement on age.

Third, the Commission should encourage the government to continue to support community-based care, while recognizing that the growing need for institutional care will become pressing in the future, and this in turn will require greater attention to be given to rehabilitation, chronic care and complex continuing care. 

[32] Statistical Snapshot No. 5: More Women Than Men, supra note 12.
[33] For example, older senior women average the longest hospital stays; Statistical Snapshot No. 47: Hospitalization of Seniors, supra note 12.  Elderly women are more likely to live in institutions (see section on Nursing Homes and Other Institutions).
[34] See F. Marzari, “Pensions, Policy and Power” (1996) 2 Appeal: Review of Current Law and Law Reform 34 at para. 1, online: QL (JOUR).
[35] In 1993, women received only 58.8% of what men received as benefits under CPP/QPP; from C.F.L. Young, “Invisible Inequalities: Women, Tax & Poverty” (1995) 27 Ottawa L.R. 99, online: QL (JOUR) citing Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Work in Progress: Tracking Women’s Equality in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1994) at 44.
[36] In 1993, 42% of female paid workers were covered by an employer-sponsored pension plan compared to 47% of male workers.  Only 21% of women who filed tax returns contributed to an RRSP in 1992, compared with 30% of men, and women contributed on average $2,444 as opposed to $3,399 for men; “Canada’s Retirement Income System: Myths and Realities” Expression: Newsletter of the National Advisory Council on Aging, vol. 10 no. 3, supra note 25.
[37] Statistics Canada, Health and Activity Limitation Survey 1991: Back up tables, Provinces and Territories, Table 4 (Ottawa: 1992), online: Statistics Canada <>.
[38] “Seniors and Disabilities” Expression: Newsletter of the National Advisory Council on Aging (2000) vol. 11 no. 1 at 3, supra note 25.
[39] Statistics Canada. 1991 Health and Activity Limitation Survey: Highlights, 12 Ottawa (1994), online: Statistics Canada <>.
[40] J. McCallum & D. Holt, “Outlook for people with disabilities…Cautious optimism on a mounting 21st century social challenge”, Current Analysis, Royal Bank of Canada (April 2000) at 3.  This statement is based on analysis of US data, however, the authors conclude that the demographics between Canada and the US are virtually identical allowing nearly identical inferences to be drawn for both societies.  Data from Statistics Canada confirms that the proportion of seniors with a long-term disability rises sharply with age; Statistical Snapshot No. 43: Seniors with Disabilities, supra note 12.
[41] McCallum & Hold, ibid. The paper estimates this figure at 1.4 million.
[42] Ibid at 4.
[43] Transportation Development Centre (Transport Canada), Making Transportation Accessible, A Canadian Planning Guide, cited in Expression: Newsletter of the National Advisory Council on Aging, vol. 13 (1999), supra note 25. 


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