Seniors Health Services

Hon. Jim Munson: I know the minister has a sincere interest in the subject of aging.

Honourable senators, Canada’s population is aging and it is no secret. All one needs to do is look at Senator Duffy and me. The serious part of the matter is that we know all about our retiring baby boomers and how that will change our society. However, are we ready to face the implications of an aging and ailing population?

Currently in this country, we have shockingly few medical professionals who specialize in looking after the elderly. Consider this: There are 200 geriatricians working in Canada — that is 200 for the entire country — to look after the 4.5 million Canadians over the age of 65 years. We have grounds for concern given the average age of Canadian senators. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, we have 2,257 pediatricians in Canada — one pediatrician for every 2,472 children under the age of 14 years — but only one geriatrician for every 20,742 adults over 65 years of age.

Could the Leader of the Government in the Senate with responsibility for seniors tell us what this government is doing to ensure that Canada’s seniors, today and in the future, have the health services they need?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government and Minister of State (Seniors)):Honourable senators, the demographic is obviously changing. Our population is aging, but on the positive side, seniors are living longer, healthier lives. That is not to say there is not a serious problem looming regarding access to doctors and health care. We saw this in the Senate when we did our health care study under Senator Michael Kirby. The so-called orphan patients are largely seniors because their doctors have aged along with them and have retired. New and younger doctors coming into the system are not as eager to take on a more senior patient because, as people become older, they require more time of the doctor.

Honourable senators, the government is well aware of this situation. I have said in this place previously that our medical schools, our universities and those teaching our young people in medical sciences would be wise, when they provide guidance to young medical researchers and doctors coming up in the profession, to recommend choosing the field of geriatrics as their specialty. There is an effort to encourage that choice.

Honourable senators, in early September, I will meet in Edmonton with ministers from the provinces and territories who have, as part of their responsibility, a seniors’ portfolio. In many cases, the ministers that I will meet with are also the ministers of health. I thank the honourable senator for mentioning this issue because it is one area that we discussed putting on the agenda. It is one of the areas of concern to the National Seniors Council that the government set up to consult with seniors and various community-based organizations around the country. I appreciate the honourable senator’s question because it reminds me to ensure that this matter is high on the agenda for the meeting in September.

Senator Munson: I thank the minister for that response, and I thank her for mentioning medical schools and how they should be reminded. In our medical schools now, students do not receive any core programming in gerontology. If students do not learn about the elderly, then it is unlikely that these students will undertake postgraduate studies in the care of the elderly. The Special Senate Committee on Aging recommended that the federal government provide funding for course development for undergraduate students. I am curious if the minister advocates for this kind of funding. It is extremely important.

Senator LeBreton: I meant to mention that committee report in my response. The delivery of health care services in this country falls to the provinces and territories. Universities are independent bodies, but that does not mean that there should not be every effort made, or a campaign mounted, to encourage our provinces and territories and our teaching institutions to step up their efforts to encourage students in the medical field to move into the area of gerontology. It is obviously an area that will require significant numbers to keep up with the demand.