Taking off of my last scanner chat post - though that hour was not necessarily the best example , so you non-scanner listeners may have to trust me on this — the biggest thing that stands out, when you’re stuck listening to the scanner for many hours, is the sheer size of the burden that seniors put on the health care system.

Consider. As a person, I am sort of an awkward assemblage of highly random talents. (Decent writer; great whistler; likes to make drawings…) One of these surprising affinities is imitation, and one of my current greatest hits amongst my friends is my “scanner voice.” It always goes roughly the same way:  ”Call is for a 74-year-old female, shortness of breath, code 4.”

Or, “For an 82-year-old male with chest pains, conscious and breathing, code 4.”    

I do this, because these types of calls imprint themselves onto your brain, if you listen to the scanner for more than ten minutes. I haven’t done anything like a scientific study, but in my estimation at least a plurality, if not an outright majority, of scanner calls on most nights are for seniors suffering from common health problems: falls, chest pains, shortness of breath, weakness.

That jibes with the fact that seniors — about 14 per cent of the Canadian population — account for just under half of total health spending, with per-capita costs skyrocketing after age 70.

Meanwhile, Stats Canada projects that in 25 years, the percentage of seniors will almost double. I won’t crunch the numbers on what that means for health-care costs, because frankly, I don’t want to think about it.

Now, don’t y’all get ahead of me. I am not heading towards some sort of modest geriatric proposal. I am suggesting, however, that the weight of the senior burden alone drives home the issue of how we need to rethink our health-care system — not just to save money, but to make people’s lives better.

There’s a phrase occasionally — and aptly — tossed around in discussions of health care policy: “We don’t have health care, we have sick care.” And once again, during a federal election cycle, I am disappointed (if not surprised) that no political party has made meaningful and cost-effective health-care change — a move away from sick care — a major landmark issue.

Fact: our system is not well-designed to support preventative care. Overworked general practitioners are often unable to be much more than reactive; besides that, I would argue that GPs aren’t always the best positioned to counsel on these matters, as many medical schools still don’t focus on teaching strategies for holistic, whole-body-and-mind health. (There’s an example of a potential cost-effective change, by the by.)

But some of those strategies are so simple — and the results are almost mindblowing.

Let’s consider one single example: strength training for seniors. The benefits of very simple strength-training exercise in seniors are both expansive and dramatic. A New Zealand study showed it decreased the risk of falls in women over 80 by 40 per cent. In British Columbia, researchers found that weight-training even once a week improved cognitive function, potentially reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

A McMaster researcher found that only two hours of strength training boosted seniors’ overall strength by 50 per cent within only six months — and found that the seniors’ muscle tissue itself was starting to look like young muscle. Other research has consistently found that seniors who engage in even short rounds of strength training a few times a week can walk much longer, have reduced problems with arthritis, gain bone density, are at lower risk of bone fracture, heal faster, actually build new muscle (while most seniors lose muscle steadily), have lower risk of disability, healthier hearts, better blood pressure…

The list goes on.

Hell, if you want to see some dramatic results, check out this video of 86-year-old bodybuilder Morjorie Newlin, who only started weight-training when she was 71. Sadly, Newlin passed away in early 2008 of leukemia — but seriously, check out her arms.

Or, just check out Kelly Nelson, a competitive bodybuilder alongside her daughter, Colleen. Nelson is pushing 80 now, I believe — but she was a youthful 75 when this photo was taken, and had been bodybuilding for 20 years:

Photo from Agelesstraining.com.


These examples (and there are tons: just search YouTube for “senior bodybuilders”) may be the outliers, the stand-outs. But they prove that it is entirely possible to enter your 70s, and 80s, not just strong — but even stronger than you used to be. And stronger = fewer falls, fewer breaks, less dementia, less need for a care home, an ambulance, an ER doc’s time, a hospital stay, drugs, surgeries, physiotherapy, nurses, care aides… 

And yet, according to some experts, only a minority of Canadian seniors engage in weight training.

Oh, there are options out there, for sure, including many that receive funding from various levels of government, and seniors’ organizations are doing a lot of good work to promote it. But yet, is is undeniable that many seniors never have education on weight-training, or contact with organizations enabling them to develop and pursue a routine, until something’s gone very wrong — until a fall and a terrible break puts them into long-term care, for instance.  

So ask yourself: knowing all of this, how could we make straightforward changes to our health care system to promote — and provide — comprehensive and accessible opportunities to get the majority of seniors doing even 30 minutes of weight training, a few times a week? How many seniors’ lives — and the lives of their families — would be better as a result?  And just looking at the results of research studies, and crunching some very conservative numbers, imagine: how much money would that save us?

Sick care isn’t working in our fiscal favour. It’s time to start caring for our health — and the numbers make it clear, we have to start now.


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