Olive's experience has been that seniors must be supported to take their needs seriously, safeguard their interests, and maintain self-respect—all of which entails a shift in how they frame their rights and value their own lives. For example, getting a proper pension is a right, says Olive, and not a privilege to be donated by a charitable agency to a pathetically grateful elderly person. Another example was the watershed moment of an older person having to give up a car, which, instead of sounding like a deprivation, could be re-framed as a smart, adaptive decision that would enhance safety at the same time as reducing effort and cost.
Many older people who have lived on subsistence incomes believe that they become rich, by contrast, when they start receiving Old Age Security. While they may not get all of what they need, they will not complain if they compare themselves to generations before Old Age Security. Olive believes that this kind of comparing obscures understanding of rights and entitlements. Getting seniors to value their experiential learning from paid and unpaid work can also be difficult because many think that skills learned in one context are not transferable to another; or they underestimate their capacity for learning new skills effectively.
It's a real challenge to help people understand their potential! At the Seniors' Centre, we would be looking for board members or chairpersons, and people would say "Oh no, oh no, I couldn't do that!" And then you finally talk them into it and the next thing you know they are on the Board and making all the decisions. Finally they realize, "Oh yes, I do have a lot to offer and other people respect me because I am willing to take on responsibilities and help others".
Working with government
Governments don't understand aging, they don't understand the cost of being an older person.
Governments also reflect negative social attitudes toward seniors by underestimating their inherent capabilities as well as the possibilities of staying engaged in their communities. One issue that Olive has lobbied for is alternative modes of transport to help non-driving seniors to engage in community activities. She observes that it is unrealistic to assume that family and friends are always available for transporting older adults, who themselves may feel reluctant to ask for help.
Seniors provide one another with significant care-giving, Olive says, which is a form of savings that could be measured in healthcare dollars in a climate where seniors are unfairly depicted as a drain on the system. Also, government fails to acknowledge the in-kind contributions that seniors make to their families and communities through volunteering, and the financial contributions they make to charities.
Lobby, educate and lobby again
Olive has learned that the lobbying and educating of government must take account of a political mind-set that is timed to re-election plans rather than longer-term strategic thinking. Also, politicians may not understand the daily realities of seniors' lives.
For Olive, lobbying for change requires carefully planned, continuous education because she has learned that one-time messages are ineffective. A judicious use of facts (statistics and other research), projections, and human-interest stories, if astutely managed, will be most effective. Always, the purpose must be to provide information in a form that will help the politician understand the lived experiences of older people.
Strategic to successful lobbying is the leverage of money matters, and activists must be prepared to address how government can save money in the longer term.
Money is the bottom line. You have to present them with real facts that are going to show that in the long term, they are going to save money, and this is how they can do it. That's hard to sell to politicians because they only live four years at a time. You also need to work with the people who advise the politicians and tell them what is really happening; educate the civil servants as well.
Why can't they understand the value of having a geriatrician in this province?
When Olive was Coordinator of the PEI Senior Citizens' Federation, they mounted a campaign to hire a geriatrician for the province, bringing in an expert from Moncton to meet with the Minister at the time to explain how specialists contributed to community living for seniors as well as helping other physicians. Although the traditional medical contingent of the day was aligned against this proposal, the lobbyists persevered, writing public education articles in the "Voice for Island Seniors" newsletter, and at every opportunity, publicly posing the question, "Why are we the only province in Canada that does not have a geriatrician?".
Finally, the province did hire a geriatrician for the Island, but he also had to serve as a consultant to Veterans Affairs Canada and held an appointment as Assistant Professor at Dalhousie University. At present, the Island has only one full-time and one part-time geriatrician. Olive cautions that this cannot possibly meet the healthcare needs of an aging population, pointing out the inequity: adults 65 years and older will soon outnumber the youngest demographic, but the Island has 8 pediatric specialists next to the 1.5 geriatricians. She argues that this is an indication of the relative value placed on seniors and their health.