Dolly Cartwright, 82, lives with her sister on a monthly pension of $1,750 that has not changed her husband passed away.
The funds are supposed to cover her property maintenance, food and transportation – in an area that includes one of the most expensive postal codes in Canada.
For Cartwright, the funds are not enough and she is often short at the end of the month, despite the fact that her pension is higher than the average seniors’ pension for single people with no other income, which is $1,050 a month.
“Sometimes you’d like to buy a new dress or a new coat or a pair of shoes, even just plain underwear,” she said.
Cartwright, a seniors’ advocate with North Shore Volunteers for Seniors, said she is not alone, adding there is limited awareness about the challenges faced by seniors living on the North Shore. “They think if you live in West Vancouver, you’ve got millions. But that’s not the case.”
She said many seniors in this tiny community on the North Shore of Vancouver end up paying $1,400 in rent in order to stay near family and friends – only to have a few hundred dollars left for everything else.
Burden of big houses
Other seniors hold on to their houses in order to avoid the possibility of ending up on the street. This had led to situations where seniors are living in large homes, but in need of food shelter support because they can’t afford to purchase essential goods.
“Some of them live in their big houses in West Van. They have lots of rooms in these big, beautiful houses their husbands left them with,” Cartwright said. “They have no money to do the things they would like to do.”
According to the 2006 census, the District of West Vancouver had the highest and fastest growing senior population in British Columbia. Seniors consist of 23 per cent of the population on the north shore, with the number of seniors increasing 20 per cent to 9,700 residents in 2006 from 2001.
UBC Economic professor Kevin Milligan said that $1,700 a month or $20,000 annually is “high up there” compared to other pensioners. He believes that excessive consumption can affect some seniors’ lives.
“People’s comfort with their finances can often depend on what they are doing on the expenditure side,” Milligan said.
“If someone has a very expensive taste, likes to go on vacation, and buys fancy clothes, it might take a lot of money to sustain that lifestyle and they would feel the financial stress.”
North Vancouver district planner Aftab Erfan said there is a “very, very limited stock” of housing that is only going to get harder to access because of rising demand. “We don’t have enough housing for seniors: small units, supported living, which would mean there’s a nurse in the building.”
She and others stand to benefit from $400 million that will be invested into social housing units for seniors over the next two years. However, the process is taking longer than ideal.
“The $400 million is part of a cost-sharing agreement with the Provinces and Territories,” said Stephen Mikicich, Senior Community Planner at District of West Vancouver.
For Cartwright those funds could best be spent by building more assisted living homes. She added that the government also could be more active in terms of promoting the assistance it offers to seniors.
“A lot of seniors won’t ask for help because they are very independent,” she said. “Grandma is not gonna ask for help because just because. It’s very degrading.”