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More seniors are using homeless shelters. Here's why, according to experts

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One of the country’s homeless shelters has seen an uptick in the number of people through its doors, including more adults over 50.

The Mustard Seed, which has facilities in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, reported 8 per cent of individuals seeking shelter are older than 65.

“We’ve had individuals who are up to the age of 80,” said Samantha Lowe, the Director of Shelter Operations with the Mustard Seed.

“We’ve had individuals palliate or seek staying in the shelter at the end of their life.”

According to a study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, that analyzed homelessness across the country, more older people in shelters is a national issue.

The report classified seniors as people over 50 because of documented physical and mental decline at that age. The main author of the report, Dr. Jillian Alston, says people who experience homelessness age faster than those who are housed.

“This is due to a number of things like difficulty navigating health care, preventative health care and other things required for maintaining our well-being and health,” said Dr. Alston.

The study found the people making up the growing 50 plus demographic aren’t just those who’ve experience chronic homelessness for years and years but also those who are finding themselves in the situation for the first time later on in life.

Several factors are contributing to the concerning trend, including the country’s housing crisis and high inflation rates.

High rent, mental health access

“And then either they’ve experienced a health emergency or they’ve experienced a sudden increase in rent and they are unable to afford both food, shelter and medication,” said Lowe.

The older demographic is also facing other complications that come with aging, including transitioning out of the workforce and being on a fixed income. Then there are health factors such as mobility issues and dementia.

“I do see a number of individuals where it’s actually been their dementia that has led to difficulty with maintaining their housing such as you know not paying bills and getting evicted,” said Dr. Alston.

Cognitive issues such as dementia can also lead to challenges when it comes to care in the shelters.

“We can try to get them to appointments. We can try to get them into housing,” said Lowe.

“We can try to figure out pathways out of the shelter. But that cognitive impairment is a huge barrier in and of itself.

Shelters aren't built for seniors

This sentiment is underscored by another finding in the study that most shelters across the country are not designed to help an older demographic with their physical and mental needs.

Dr. Alston says a collaboration between health and long-term care and other social services is needed to address the issue.

“Having cross-sectoral efforts to just really harmonize health care housing shelters to improve the lives of older adults who are experiencing homelessness,” she said. 

Dr. Alston says Scarborough Village Residents is an example of one shelter in Canada that is designed to accommodate the health-care needs of clients over 50. 

“There is embedded health care supports, embedded hearing clinic, embedded physiotherapy and nursing for giving medications on site.” 

The Mustard Seed in Edmonton has partnered up with other agencies to offer health care services. 

“But we’re not able to provide that in all of our shelters because there isn’t either funding or an organization available to do so,” said Lowe.

 “It’s a complex population in that we do need to serve and we’re looking to expand a lot of the services that we have so we can target that specific population.”

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