By David Lindsay
Ontario’s universities continued their year-long conversation about the future on Tuesday with a roundtable discussion about the dramatic demographic changes taking place in Ontario today. Leaders from the health, research, business, community planning and academic sectors gathered over breakfast to talk about how Ontario can support our aging population in all aspects of their lives.
The numbers on our changing population are clear. Just this week, census results revealed that for the first time in our history, there are more seniors than children living in Canada. The same is true for Ontario, and estimates indicate that the portion of people over 65 in the province is projected to increase from 16.7 per cent today to 25 per cent in 2036.
At our roundtable, it became immediately obvious that the consequences of these changes are already being felt across the province.
“We have to accept the fact that there is some real urgency to this,” said Anthony Dale, President and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, noting that “Ontario’s hospitals are jammed.”
One major issue, said Anne-Marie Malek, the President and CEO of West Park Healthcare Centre, is that Ontarians are often being put in hospital beds when they would want to be, and could be, getting the care they need in other ways. “We need to be thinking about how to reorganize the system to accommodate those needs in an appropriate way and in a sustainable way,” Malek said.
One immediate solution that a number of people at the roundtable supported was boosting the use of innovative technology in the sector. Dale said it is “probably one of the only ways we’ll be able to build a rapid amount of capacity in a short period of time.” And Barb Collins, President and CEO of Humber River Hospital, noted that new wearable technology would keep people out of hospitals by allowing health practitioners to get warning signs of problems and to intervene proactively.
That’s a benefit that Bill Walker, MPP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound and the Progressive Conservative Critic for Seniors, Long-Term Care and Accessibility, noted would be particularly impactful in his riding and in remote rural regions of our province.
Such a need for proactive and preventive work was another major theme of the roundtable. Participants were in agreement that our support for Ontarians as they age has to come in many forms, and particularly in ways that will help them rely less on the health sector and lead long, healthy lives.
Elizabeth Buller, the President and CEO of St. Joseph’s Health Centre Toronto and the host of the roundtable, opened the discussion by talking about whether there’s a way “we can work at some preventions to help [seniors] have a better quality of life.”
“Part of the conversation,” Collins added, “should be about the 65-year-old healthy person who still wants to have some meaningful work, and whether in fact meaningful work for people at an older age will actually keep them healthier longer.” The majority of Ontarians who turn 65 are not going to need care right away. What they will need are the services – transit, housing, libraries, community centres – to have rich, fruitful lives long into their later years.
Without these services, said Barb Steed, Executive Vice-President of Patient Services and Chief Practice Officer at Markham Stoufville Hospital, people are more likely to end up in a hospital. But ensuring a well-rounded approach to health requires coordination and collaboration. “We need to stop working so much in silos,” said Steed.
The need for cross-sector work was also emphasized by Loretta Ryan, the Director of Public Affairs at the Ontario Professional Planners Institute. “People need to have access to a core set of infrastructure in their community… in order to stay active in it, to feel connected,” she said.
Making that happen often comes down to simple planning decisions. Increasing walkability, for instance, can take nothing more than ensuring we have sidewalks. “We know that… a person with a sidewalk is 75 per cent more likely to walk,” Ryan argued.
The importance of collaboration across sectors pushed the conversation toward how universities in particular are vital to creating a healthy future for Ontario. Proper training and education are essential, but some saw the need for changes in our approach. An emphasis must be placed on “a customer-service approach,” said Laurie Johnston, CEO of the Ontario Retirement Communities Association. “You cannot come out with a purely clinical approach to everything because with the older population, so much of it is just, how are they doing that day… A social intervention can do as much as a pill can, sometimes a lot more.”
Susan Denburg, Associate Vice-President Academic in the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University, acknowledged that “we always focus on skills but actually the biggest issue in training people to work in the aging sector is attitude.”’
The importance of experiential learning was also highlighted. Giving students experience working with the elderly not only helps reduce the stigma of doing so, said Mary Schulz, Director of Education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada. It also improves awareness about all the career opportunities that exist in the sector.
Jennifer Bowman, Vice-President of People, Strategy and Clinical Support at North York General Hospital, further noted that collaboration between the healthcare sector and universities could go beyond students and extend to employees looking for career advancement and new learning opportunities. And Schulz pointed out that the best collaborations are often project-based; they arise when a researcher and a healthcare worker realize they have a common interest or goal and unite to work on them together.
Ultimately, the roundtable produced a number of valuable paths to explore for creating a healthy future for Ontario. But one insight that loomed large was that none of these solutions can come alone, and that none can be achieved alone.
“We are moving away from a fairly siloed world… to a world where really the solutions have to be much more interconnected, where they have to be much more complex and they stretch across multiple disciplines,” said Sophia Ikura, Senior Director of Strategy, Community Engagement and Population Health at the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network.
That is the case not only for the health sector. It’s the case across sectors and industries in Ontario. And it’s a central reason why Ontario’s universities are holding these roundtables and starting these conversations: so we can work together to create a better future for our province.
We are eager to hear more of your thoughts, whether through our survey about the aging population in Ontario or our survey about the future of Ontario in general. You can also always email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you, and to working together to build a strong, healthy future for all Ontarians.
President and CEO
Council of Ontario Universities