System failing growing number of seniors who are homeless, need more support: report

Shelters failing seniors

A new report says shelters are not designed to meet the physical or mental health needs of the growing number of older adults who are homeless.  

Lead author Dr. Jillian Alston says people who experience homelessness age faster than people who are housed due to factors such as ongoing stress and the inability to properly manage chronic medical conditions. 

The paper, published this morning in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, says many people who are homeless are considered seniors as early as age 50.

Alston, who is a geriatrician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, says shelters don't have essential supports seniors often need, including medication storage or proper wound care.

Seniors with mobility issues are also at an increased risk of falling and those with cognitive impairments are at risk of being victimized in shelters.  

Alston says an aging population, the affordable housing crisis, and life changes — such as losing a partner, becoming injured or relying on a reduced income — all contribute to the rise in homelessness among seniors. 

Measures to prevent seniors from becoming homeless in the first place, including supportive housing that incorporates medical, mental health and addictions care, is a big part of the solution, she said in an interview.  

"We need to not look at health care as separate from housing and housing (as) separate from health care," Alston said.

"They are so intricately linked."

The paper analyzed the issue of homelessness among seniors based on the authors' clinical observations as well as a review of several studies. 

Many people have become seniors while they are homeless, but there are also many seniors who become homeless for the first time when they're older, Alston said. 

A senior might be"isolated socially who then develops cognitive impairment and starts stopping to pay their bills and then gets evicted and then is sent to the shelter," she said.

Some seniors become homeless while on waiting lists for long-term care, Alston said. 

"I've seen a number of individuals (in shelters) who have been in their 80s. I have seen — not many — but I have seen some who have been in their 90s," she said.

"I think as a society we can do better."

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