February 16, 2017
Seniors Health Photo

by Christine Bradstock

Today, the Physiotherapy Association of British Columbia (PABC) released the second in a series of position papers to be published in advance of the May 9 provincial general election.

The topic of our most recent paper is our province’s fast-growing seniors’ population, and specifically how physiotherapy can provide improved and more affordable healthcare for elderly British Columbians. It’s a topic of increasing importance, in large part because the number and proportion of BC residents aged 65 years and older is growing very rapidly.

Consider that, three decades ago, BC seniors represented 11.9 per cent of the province’s total population. Today that share is up to 18.0 per cent, and twenty years from now it is expected to reach 25.3 per cent.

In the space of five decades, from 1986 to 2036, the proportion of British Columbians aged 65 years and older will have soared from about one in ten, to one in four. If those numbers seem daunting, think about BC’s seniors’ population in a slightly different way. Last year, the actual number of elderly residents added up to an estimated 853,400 – up from 358,100 during Expo ‘86. Yet, in a little over two decades from now, it is forecast that the number of British Columbians age 65 and older will have surpassed 1.5 million.

Thinking ahead, we only can imagine the many implications for our province when more than one-quarter of all British Columbians – over 1.5 million in number – are seniors. One near certainty is that healthcare expenditures will grow dramatically.

Today, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information and Stats BC, seniors represent 42.0 per cent of the provincial government’s healthcare spending, despite composing not quite 17.0 per cent of the province’s population. Both of those numbers will rise sharply in coming years.

So, how can physiotherapy help to keep seniors healthier, and at an affordable cost?

Physiotherapists work with patients who are beset by injury, illness or disability, assisting them in recovery through exercise, manual therapy and education. They help manage pain, prevent disease and promote better health.

For example, seniors often are susceptible to Parkinson’s, a progressive neurological condition marked by tremor, uncertain movement and muscular rigidity. Physiotherapy is proven to be helpful for seniors diagnosed with Parkinson’s because physiotherapists can design and teach strategies for movement that help patients to overcome difficulty in generating automatic movement and thought. Physiotherapy also can assist to minimize the physical deterioration that accompanies Parkinson’s, promote self-management and maintain general fitness.

Accidental falls also pose a very serious risk to seniors, often being fatal for the elderly. In 2011, the number of direct deaths from falls in BC were 624 – more than triple the number of deaths in the province from automobile accidents. In total, direct and indirect deaths due to falls in people over the age of 60 in British Columbia that year were 926. Physiotherapists work with seniors to teach fall prevention strategies, helping them to improve balance and gain self-confidence. In this way, physiotherapy can assist seniors in retaining their independence for as long as possible.

Physiotherapy can also speed up seniors’ recovery after surgery and other medical treatment, reducing or preventing hospitalizations.

In these and many other ways, physiotherapy greatly assists seniors’ healthcare, all at a very affordable cost.

It is disappointing, therefore, that British Columbia seems to lag behind other provinces in the provision of physiotherapy services to seniors. Last year, Isobel Mackenzie, BC’s Seniors’ Advocate, reported that “physical therapy is critical in keeping seniors as mobile and active as possible, for as long as possible.” But she also found that only 12.5 per cent of seniors living in residential care in BC had received physiotherapy during the preceding seven days. In Alberta and Ontario, meanwhile, the comparable figures were 23.7 per cent and 50.0 per cent.

In conclusion, it is evident that the BC seniors’ population is growing dramatically, and it is near certain that healthcare costs also will escalate sharply. Physiotherapy can help to mitigate this expected explosion in health spending, and the PABC’s newly released position paper provides answers as to how that can be accomplished.

Christine Bradstock is the Chief Executive Officer of the Physiotherapy Association of British Columbia.

Read the full text of the position paper on seniors' healthcare here.