Nearly two months into living in some form of isolation, watching retirement savings take a hit, and having to take additional health precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, eligible seniors are set to receive a one-time tax-free payment of up to $500.
On Tuesday the federal government unveiled its plans to spend $2.5 billion sending these cheques to millions of seniors.
“There’s no question that COVID-19 has been taking its toll on seniors both emotionally and financially… our government is taking action to alleviate some of the stress they may be feeling,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, adding that there’s still work ahead to find long-term solutions to how Canada’s elderly are cared for.
Any senior who is eligible for the Old Age Security (OAS) pension will receive a $300 payment, and an additional $200 is being sent to seniors eligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). No application is required to receive this one-time payment.
The federal government estimates there are currently 6.7 million seniors who are eligible for the OAS pension and 2.2 million who are eligible for the GIS.
Seniors Minister Deb Schulte and Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos announced the new measures ahead of Trudeau’s address from Rideau Cottage.
Seniors are a demographic that continues to be hardest hit from a health standpoint by COVID-19, with deadly outbreaks in long-term care homes across the country. Others are facing additional economic challenges as many live on a fixed income and have expressed concerns about their ability to make ends meet during this time.
Schulte said the pandemic has made life more expensive and more difficult for the oldest Canadians, as many are facing higher costs for services, higher medication dispensing fees, are paying premiums for deliveries – all while their life savings have “taken a beating.”
Diane Levasseur, a senior living in Montreal, says her day-to-day life has gotten pricier under lockdown measures.
“These days … I don’t have enough money to get by,” Levasseur says in an interview with CTV News. “So I have to use a food bank.”
Some advocates are questioning why seniors are only being sent this payment once and not on a recurring monthly basis, as many of the other federal aid measures are.
“It’s not enough because it really doesn’t address fundamentally the financial issues that seniors are having right now, which is how to live in a time of COVID, when the markets are really very pressed,” said Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of CanAge, a national seniors’ advocacy organization.
Levasseur also says the one-time payment likely won’t be enough.
“The prime minister, I don’t know if he did any shopping lately, but I don’t think so,” she says of being able to afford groceries.
In an interview on CTV’s Power Play, Schulte defended the one-time payment, saying it is “a lot of money,” and said the government will continue to look at needs that arise as the pandemic continues.
MONEY FOR VIRTUAL CONNECTIONS, VULNERABLE SENIORS
In addition to these one-time cheques, the government is increasing funding to community support programs by $20 million to bolster projects including those aimed at reducing isolation, such as virtual exercise classes and providing tablets and tutorials on how to video conference.
The government is also temporarily extending the GIS payments to seniors if their 2019 income information has not yet been assessed, allowing those people to continue to receive their benefits.
The government is encouraging seniors who have yet to do so, to submit their 2019 income information as soon as possible and no later than by October 1, 2020 in order to avoid an interruption in their benefits.
Despite initial confusion during the ministers’ press conference, legislative changes will not be required to enact any of the new seniors measures announced, Schulte’s office later told CTVNews.ca. Further, according to her office, the one-time payments are expected to be sent within weeks.
Earlier on in the outbreak, the government took steps to assist seniors with funds for seniors-focused community programs like grocery delivery, and by reducing required minimum withdrawals from Registered Retirement Income Funds (RRIFs) by 25 per cent for 2020.
The government also spent $1.3 billion in a one-time special payment through the Goods and Services Tax (GST) credit in April. More than four million seniors received this top-up, giving an average of $375 for single seniors and $510 for senior couples.
LOOKING AT LONG-TERM CARE SOLUTIONS
This long-awaited and continually-promised additional support for “the seniors who built us this extraordinary country,” as the prime minister has put it, comes in advance of what Trudeau said Tuesday will be a longer-term look at seniors’ care.
Speaking to the latest statistics on Tuesday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said that approximately 20 per cent of the more than 71,000 COVID-19 cases in Canada are linked to long-term care homes, while 80 per cent of the more than 5,000 deaths in Canada to-date, are among seniors who live in long term care and assisted living facilities.
She said these numbers “lend a voice to the unspeakable scale of the impact on our seniors.”
Trudeau said the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 has “exposed some uncomfortable truths about our society, including how we care for seniors in Canada, and said “in the coming months” the federal government will have more to say in conjunction with the provinces when it comes to finding a more lasting solution.
“We’ve seen heartbreaking tragedies in long-term care facilities and nursing homes right across the country. Overworked staff, understaffed residences, grieving families. There are serious, underlying challenges facing these facilities,” Trudeau said.
The government has struck agreements with the provinces and territories to top up the wages of some essential front-line workers including those in long-term care facilities.
The military is also currently deployed to more than two dozen seniors’ homes in Quebec and a handful in Ontario. Though, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has said this cannot be a lasting solution and it’ll be on the provinces to establish more sustainable staffing plans.
Asked what further steps will be taken, and whether a public inquiry is on the table into the state of these care homes nationwide, Schulte—who said she too has parents in long-term care home—offered no indication that’s a consideration the government is currently taking, but called it a “tragedy.”
“Our focus right now is getting all the supports that we can to the provinces and territories so that they can deal with this, and keep as many of our seniors safe and save lives. Going forward, there will be time to reflect on the lessons that we’ve learned, and the work that needs to be done,” Schulte said.