One in six Nelson seniors lives on the edge of poverty, according to a Nelson Star analysis of 2016 census data.
While the B.C.-wide poverty rate for residents aged 65 and older sits at a national high of 14.9 per cent, Nelson’s is a full two points higher at 16.6 per cent. Compare that to Alberta, for example, where the seniors’ poverty rate is 8.6 per cent.
Brad Howard is a retired accountant who does income tax returns for low-income individuals in Nelson. He estimates that in 2018, he and the other volunteers with the Nelson and District Seniors Coordinating Society have done returns for over 350 seniors, hailing from Nelson and surrounding communities.
Many of the individuals whom Howard was helping were living off of Old Age Security payments and federal guaranteed income supplements (GIS), totalling around $15,000 of annual income.
Without aggravating factors like unpredictable healthcare costs, Howard says that the finances can work.
“At a certain point, Old Age and GIS pretty well covers all of your needs,” Howard explained. “The only thing is that you can’t afford an orthopedic bed and you can’t afford new glasses, and prescriptions can push it.”
With fixed incomes and often without robust pension plans, many Nelson seniors are hit hard by changes to their expenses. Rising housing costs, transportation fare and unforeseen medical costs all complicate their budgets.
Nelson’s vacancy rate for residential rental properties currently sits at 0 per cent while overall prices continue to climb, according to the 2018 Report Card on Homelessness released Tuesday by the Nelson Committee on Homelessness.
On fixed incomes, seniors are heavily impacted by the rate hikes. And while there are some low-income housing options such as Kiwanis residences, Anderson Gardens and the several Nelson Cares-run properties, vacancies are a lottery.
In 2017, for example, Anderson Gardens had 82 people on their wait list to get in. Meanwhile, the 33-unit building for low-income seniors and adults with disabilities only had two suites turn over. According to a Nelson Committee on Homelessness 2016 report, seniors could expect to wait up to 16 years to move into a low-income residence.
Pastor Jim Reimer sees many seniors come through his doors for the Our Daily Bread hot-lunch program every day, looking not just for an affordable meal, but for companionship as well.
“When we started we were just wanting to feed people and give people food that were hungry,” Reimer said, “but we found that people want and need social connection. That in itself is a stimulant for emotional health.”
“We open our doors at 8:30 in the morning and seniors come here early in the morning and they play cards and they have a coffee, and basically, they socialize.”
When even visiting with friends can be a luxury, Our Daily Bread offers an important opportunity for low-income seniors.
“When you have money, you also invariably have a social life,” Reimer said. “You can go to a show, you can go out, you can travel.” But without financial flexibility, “often times you also experience loneliness. Where can you go that doesn’t cost money?”
Services like Our Daily Bread and the Nelson and District Seniors Coordinating Society are vital to help fill in gaps that individuals on fixed-incomes would otherwise struggle to address, but they are going to have to keep up with a seniors’ population that is expected to surge by 42 per cent over the next 20 years.
For now, Nelson CARES’ 47-unit Lakeside Place is slated to begin construction this summer to help relieve some of the low-income housing waitlist pressure.