Demographics are changing significantly in the province of British Columbia and the Honourable Ralph Sultan, the Minister of State for Seniors, was in Invermere on Wednesday, December 5 to speak to local seniors about the provincial government’s strategy for B.C.’s aging population and gather feedback.

“In my riding, we have 25 per cent of the population 65 or older and that will be fairly soon characteristic of the province as a whole within a dozen years or so,” Sultan told The Valley Echo, “so we have to adjust all sorts of things; the health system, the housing system, the entire society has to cope with older people, many of whom will continue in the work force.”

Sultan, 79, is the longtime Liberal MLA for the riding of West Vancouver-Capilano and was appointed Minister of State for Seniors on September 5. He has been travelling the province answering questions on everything from housing and health to transportation issues.

His presentation at the Invermere Seniors’ Hall to roughly 15 people stressed three strategic elements: better at home, support services and planning.

“As seniors age, they invariably want to stay living in their existing home rather than being housed in some apartment type complex and the government agrees heartily with that,” Sultan said, noting that putting seniors in subsidized or owned and operated residential facilities is a very expensive operation.

“About half of the entire health budget is being  consumed by seniors at the present time, and the health budget itself is half of all government spending,” Sultan said, “so seniors are scooping up about one quarter of the entire provincial budget right now.”

Demographics also suggest that not enough young people are moving into positions to provide seniors with the health care they need, in terms of support services, care aids and attendants for seniors as they become older and more frail.

“While you can import these care workers from abroad, that has its limitations as well so at the end of the day I think the common solution is that seniors are going to have to look after themselves,” Sultan said, “and they already do in small towns but that’s a more radical thought in the big city so you have to recreate the communities in the large cities that probably replicate what happens here.”

Leading into his third point, that any planning for seniors will have to happen at the local level and not be masterminded centrally from Victoria, Sultan said the slogan the government has adopted is: Planning with seniors, but not for them.

“Every community is so different, and their needs and existing institutions are so different, so you really have to do a grassroots effort to listen and find out what’s appropriate in every different part of B.C.,” he said.

Other issues that have been brought to his attention include dementia and alzheimers, elder abuse and issues within the health system itself.

Doug Clovechok, the BC Liberal candidate for the Columbia River-Revelstoke riding who facilitated the meeting, said that locally, in the Columbia Valley, transportation for seniors was a pressing issue.

“We live in a rural community, so when we chose to leave in these areas we’re not going to have access to the health and hospital facilities like you would have in Cranbrook,” said Clovechok, ” but what we have to ensure is that our ground transportation is adequate enough to meet the needs of seniors who need to travel to those centres.”