Ageism, sexism combine to hamper elder care

By Laura Funk and Brianne Goertzen,

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press June 15, 2021 

For over a year now, Manitobans, like all Canadians, have been learning how the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated those who live and work in the seniors’ care sector. In public conversations, many have tried to ascertain just how this all came about in the first place. Scholars from the Royal Society of Canada pointed to the fundamental problem of “long-standing deficiencies” in the sector. Inherent structural deficiencies that were exacerbated by the pandemic have exposed the lack of political will to act, and ageism might very well be an underlying factor. Yet we also contend that gender is key to understanding how and why the situation in seniors care came to be and has persisted over the decades in this country.   

To date, deficiencies in systems and continuums of publicly-funded care persist. As the National Institute on Aging reports, Canada’s expenditures on publicly funded home and long-term care (1.2% of GDP) places us well below the OECD average of 1.7%. Part of the explanation for societal under-investment in seniors care, as identified by scholars and seniors advocates alike is pervasive ageism – attitudes devaluing old age and older adults. In this sense, ageism (as well as an ableism that devalues those living with physical or cognitive impairment) is institutionalized within our public systems of care. 

Notably, public conversations about seniors’ care rarely raise the issue of gender. Yet researchers have demonstrated for decades, there tend to be persistent assumptions that care for older adults – as with children –  should be a private family responsibility and based on traditional gender role assumptions women are best suited to provide this care. 

Feminist scholars have been pointing this out for decades, but rarely do their messages gain traction in the general public awareness or debate. For instance, a recent series in the Edmonton Journal, although commendable for drawing attention to the impacts of COVID-19 on family caregivers, does not mention gender. Yet women (still), on the whole, spend more hours providing more intensive, less discretionary types of unpaid help for older adults than do male family members and tend to experience greater stressors and subjective burden due to these care responsibilities. Many women are also lifelong caregivers for multiple family members over time. Research shows that the disproportionate burden of caregiving work has negative effects on the health and financial status of women. 

It is striking, therefore, that eldercare is rarely identified as a feminist issue. Instead, policy-makers falsely assume that publicly funded care for older adults would somehow displace family responsibility, despite gerontological research challenging this assumption. We thus propose that institutionalized sexism is a key component behind the under-funding of home and LTC for older adults in Canada. 

This is compounded, as others have noted, by the fact that women (especially racialized women) are more likely to be paid providers of public services, with over 90% of long-term care employees in Canada being women. And women are more likely than men to experience needs for publicly funded care, such as long-term care or home care, as they tend to live longer with higher rates of chronic conditions and/or disabilities, and single, widowed and divorced women are more likely to face financial challenges to hiring care outside of the public system. 

In Manitoba, even though older adults represent a significant portion of the voting population, this has not resulted in increased political will to invest in senior’s care. Instead, under this provincial government, we have seen a continuation of frozen operational funding for personal care homes, refusal to increase staffing ratios or even legislate current staffing ratio guidelines, no additional supports for home care recipients (instead, pandemic-related cuts to service), a refusal to enact legislation to create a Manitoba Seniors Advocate, and an overall de-prioritization of issues directly impacting older adults. This includes the 2017 axing of the Manitoba Council on Aging and Caregiver Advisory Council. The attempt to placate older adults with a $200 cheque in response to COVID in 2020 did nothing to correct embedded systemic inequities adversely affecting the lives of older adults. Is this institutionalized ageism at work? Or is it institutionalized sexism? The answer is, quite likely, is both.

Laura Funk is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Manitoba. 

Brianne Goertzen is the Provincial Director of the non-partisan Manitoba Health Coalition and a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba research associate & steering committee member.