The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) states adults 65 years of age and older are in a high-risk category for COVID-19. PHAC also lists “economic barriers” as a condition creating greater risk.1 While it appears that more men than women are unfortunately dying from COVID-19, there is not much data available on the diverse impacts of COVID-19 on senior women.
The Government of Canada and its provinces and territories have rolled out an astonishing number of programs designed to assist individuals and businesses during this difficult time. However, a feminist intersectional lens has not been applied to how this particularly impacts senior women. This article is a very preliminary analysis and basic first step.
Senior women are generally poorer than senior men. One reason is that senior women earn less money than men during their working years, and as a result receive lower monthly Canada Pension Plan (CPP) payments. In 2014, the median annual CPP benefit was $8,200 for men and $6,500 for women.2
This makes directives such as stocking up on additional food and purchasing hand sanitizer, soap, and anti-bacterial wipes impossible for many low-income senior women to follow. They simply don’t have enough money to do so.
In British Columbia, the provincial government has provided an additional crisis grant of $300 per month for a three-month period to low-income seniors who receive both the Guaranteed Income Supplement and the BC Seniors supplement, but this policy has not been implemented nationwide.
In 2015, 14.6% of senior women in Canada worked during the year.3 Of that, 3.2% of employed women aged 65 and over were working part-time.4 Most of the newly rolled out government programs do not take these realities into account.
Some senior women work because their combined Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Old Age Security (OAS) payments are not adequate to pay basic needs such as rent and groceries. Yet, regular EI deducts some or all of these payments, when calculating the amount of regular EI a person will receive. The net effect is that some senior women workers may not be entitled to EI or may only receive a very small amount of EI.
In order to be eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) one must have earned $5,000.00 in the previous year. This means that a senior woman earning $15.00 per hour had to work over 333 hours in the past year in order to be eligible. Many working senior women may not make that threshold. At this time it is also unclear if working seniors who are in receipt of CPP and/or OAS are eligible for CERB.
Senior women also work in the gig economy and are often paid under the table. The work they do includes housecleaning, childcare, pet sitting and other types of personal services. Most of this work has dried up since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. People are wary about letting others into their homes, are not taking trips, and now have the time to walk their pets. This means an important but largely invisible source of needed income for senior women has evaporated. Since income from this type of work is not reported, there is no avenue to access CERB benefits.
All of these factors have contributed to the financial vulnerability of some senior women.
The application process for many of the newly announced COVID -19 government benefits is problematic for many senior women, especially those who have low incomes, have English or French as a second language or who have low literacy levels.
Governments at all levels are encouraging on-line applications. However, many low- income seniors are either unable to afford computers and/or do not have access to the internet. With locations such as public libraries closed, they have limited options in terms of applying for these benefits. Seniors who are not fluent in English or French and seniors with low literacy levels may need assistance in filling out these forms. Many senior women are able to use computers to email with their friends, and occasionally Skype with their families, but they do not feel confident filling out forms and applications online. The on-line application processes are a barrier for some senior women.
Prior to COVID-19 there were numerous complaints about the length of time it took to speak over the phone to both Service Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency. In March and April 2020, the amount of these calls grew exponentially. For a variety of reasons, many seniors cannot wait for an hour or more on the phone. Therefore, it is difficult for them to inquire or apply for these benefits over the phone.
This needs to be addressed by the federal government.
More senior women than senior men receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). The GIS provides a monthly non-taxable benefit to Old Age Security (OAS) pension recipients who have a low income and are living in Canada. A persons’ eligibility for the GIS is based on their reported income. In order to obtain the GIS a senior needs to file their income tax annually. With the federal government extending the time frame to file income tax, there is a lack of clarity as to what will happen with the GIS. There is no definitive information as to when a senior’s annual eligibility for the GIS will be reassessed nor is there a clear policy on what will happen if a senior’s income has increased in 2019, thereby affecting the amount and/or eligibility for the GIS.
To relieve concerns, the GIS rate received by a senior should be maintained at the 2019 rate (with the addition of the regular cost of living increases) until the end of 2020. If a senior’s income increased in the 2019 tax year, the federal government needs to implement a policy that there will be no claw back or overpayment of the GIS monies already received.
The extension for filing income tax is an important step. However, many low-income people, including seniors, rely on community-based income tax clinics in order to file income tax. Many of these programs are volunteer run and are now closed because of COVID-19. It will take time and effort to re-open these clinics. If the governments’ income tax deadlines occur before these clinics can become operational again, then many senior women will be disadvantaged and put in a position of losing vital benefits. Governments need to look at this and provide funding to community-based income tax clinics and to enhance their own Revenue Canada services to provide assistance to seniors.
More senior women than senior men live alone. 31.5% of senior women lived alone in a private household in 2011, compared with 16.0% of senior men.5 Senior women are more likely to be poor than senior men, particularly those living alone.6
The advice from public health officials is that seniors should self- isolate, this means that senior women, particularly those who live alone, may have difficulty accessing food, and medication. Quite simply if you live alone, and are urged not to go out, you either have to rely on others or take a risk and go out in order to get necessary items. As mentioned previously, many low-income senior women do not have access to computers and the internet, so shopping on-line is not an option. Many grocery services have delivery available, but those services are stretched out and wait times span weeks7 on top of the additional fees, which increase the costs of food for low income seniors. In some locations, seniors’ hubs are being developed and funded to address these needs but this is very uneven.
This is yet another issue all levels of governments need to address.
In the best of times, senior social isolation is a health hazard. Senior women are at risk of social isolation if they live alone, have limited access to transportation, and have few opportunities for physical and social activities. The changes brought on by COVID-19 will exacerbate the social isolation of senior women. This is for the following reasons:
Part of the COVID-19 response needs to include a plan to address social isolation.
On a regular basis, all levels of governments are announcing needed programs to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. This is important.
However, questions remain about who is included and excluded from these programs and how they affect other benefits policies and programs.
One example has to do with rent/housing charges for seniors who live in subsidized social housing. Generally, their rent is calculated at 30% of income. If a senior receives a benefit from one of the myriads of new government programs, how does this impact their rent? If income from these programs is used to calculate rent, it will raise the monthly housing charge and in the long term will negate the benefits of the COVID-19 program. A second example has to do with the GIS. If monies received from these new government programs are used to determine both the amount and eligibility for the GIS, many seniors may end up having their GIS reduced or eliminated.
Prior to COVID-19, there were a number of problems in terms of staffing in long term care facilities. Some of this has been related to the privatization and contracting out of facilities. Privatization has led to cost-saving measures which include an extremely low staff to resident ratio and insufficient care hours for residents. All of this led to a poor quality of care and a lack of dignity for seniors in long term care before the pandemic but is exacerbated now.
There have been an appalling number of COVID-19 outbreaks in long term care homes. While governments have taken some steps, many more need to be taken. These include:
COVID-19 has reinforced the need for strong, publicly run and delivered, social programs. This can only benefit senior women in the long run.
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1 Public Health Agency Canada. Who is most at risk? https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection.html#risk
2 Ivanova, I., Daub, S., Cohen, M., Jenkins, J. “Poverty and inequality Among British Columbia’s Seniors.” CCPA BC office, April 2017, Page 11.
3 Statistics Canada, Census in Brief “Working Seniors in Canada” November 29, 2017.
4 Hudon, T. and Milan, A. “Senior Women in Canada.” Statistics Canada, March 30, 2016.
5 Hudon, T. and Milan, A. “Senior Women in Canada.” Statistics Canada, March 30, 2016.
6 Ivanova, I., Daub, S., Cohen, M., Jenkins, J. “Poverty and inequality Among British Columbia’s Seniors.” CCPA BC office, April 2017, Page 4.
7 CBC-News. Long wait times for grocery delivery and pickups in Ottawa (March 31, 2020). https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/surge-demand-grocery-delivery-1.5514401