Senior Women: The Issue

Exerpt from Senior Women in Women in Canada (Fifth Edition) A Gender-based Statistical Report (2005) by Colin Lindsay and Marcia Almey. Retrieved January 2009.

 

A Rapidly Growing Population

Women aged 65 and over constitute one of the fastest growing segments of the female population in Canada. In 2004, there were an estimated 2.3 million senior women, up 26% from 1991 and 72% from 1981. Indeed, the growth rate in the number of senior women has been twice that for women under the age of 65 over the course of the past couple of decades. As a result of these trends, the share of the overall female population accounted for by senior women has risen sharply in the last several decades. In 2004, women aged 65 and over made up 15% of the total population, up from 13% in 1991, 9% in 1971, and just 5% in 1921.

The female population aged 65 and over is expected to grow even more rapidly during the next several decades, particularly once women born during the baby boom years from 1946 to 1965 begin turning age 65 early in the next decade. Statistics Canada has projected1 that by 2016 18% of the female population will be aged 65 and over, and that by 2031, one in four of all females in Canada will be a senior. In fact, the senior population in Canada is predominantly female. In 2004, women made up 57% of all Canadians aged 65 and over, whereas they made up just over half (51%) of those aged 55 to 64 and 50% or less of those in age groups under age 55.

Women account for even larger shares of the older segments of the senior population. In 2004, women made up 69% of all persons aged 85 and older and 59% of those aged 75 to 84, compared with 53% of people aged 65 to 74. The fact that women make up such a disproportionate share of the very oldest segments of the population has major implications. The female cohort aged 85 and over is the fastest growing segment of the senior female population, while those in this age range also tend to be the most vulnerable to serious health problems; they are the most likely to live alone and need social support from their families and the community.


Increasing Life Expectancy

Women now predominate in the ranks of Canadian seniors, in large part because the life expectancy of women has risen more rapidly than that of men during most of the last century. By 2002, a 65-year-old woman could expect to live, on average, another 20.6 years, seven years longer than the figure in 1921. In contrast, the life expectancy of a 65-year-old man rose only four years in the same period. As a result, a 65-year-old woman currently can expect to live, on average, three years longer than her male counterpart.

Most of the difference in the life expectancy of senior women and men, however, occurred prior to 1981. Between 1921 and 1981, the life expectancy of a 65-year-old woman rose by over five years, whereas the figure for senior men increased by only about a year and a half. In contrast, since 1981, the life expectancy of senior women has increased by just over a year and a half, almost a full year less than the comparative change among men. As a result of this trend, the share of the senior population accounted for by women has fallen slightly in recent years. Indeed, in 2004, women made up 57% of the overall senior population, compared with 58% in 1991. The share of the population aged 65 and over accounted for by women is also expected to dip further in the next couple of decades. Statistics Canada has projected that by 2031 the share of the senior population accounted for by women will have dropped to just over 54%.1 This figure, though, is projected to remain at that level for the rest of the first half of this century.


Most Live in a Private Household with Family

The vast majority of senior women live at home in a private household. In 2001, 91% of all women aged 65 and over lived at home, although this was less than the figure for their male counterparts, 95% of whom lived at home that year. Not surprisingly, younger seniors are more likely to live at home than their older counterparts. In fact, in 2001, almost all women aged 65 to 74 (98%) lived at home, whereas this was the case for only 65% of those aged 85 and over. As well, there is a particularly wide gap between the proportions of senior women and men in older ranges living at home. In 2001, 65% of women aged 85 and over resided in a private household, compared with 78% of their male counterparts. In contrast, the share of women aged 75-84 living at home was just slightly below the figure for men in this age range, 91% versus 94%, while there was almost no difference in the proportion of women and men aged 65 to 74 living at home.

The majority of senior women living in a private household live with their family, either as a family head or spouse, or with their extended family, such as the family of a daughter or son. In 2001, 60% of all women aged 65 and over lived with family members: 43% were living with their husband, while a small percentage (1%) were living with their common-law partner and 8% were lone parents. In addition, over 150,000 senior women, 8% of the total, lived with members of their extended family.

Senior women are considerably less likely than their male counterparts to be living with a partner. In 2001, 44% of women aged 65 and over, versus 76% of men in this age range, were living at home with their spouse or common-law partner. In contrast, senior women were more likely than senior men to be a lone parent. That year, 8% of women aged 65 and over were classified as lone parents, whereas just 2% of senior men were lone parents. Senior women are also considerably more likely than senior men to be living with members of their extended family. In 2001, 8% of women aged 65 and over were living with members of their extended family, such as the family of a daughter or son, compared with 3% of senior men.

Not surprisingly, the family structure of senior women varies considerably for those in different age ranges. In 2001, for example, only 12% of women aged 85 and over were living with a partner, whereas this was the case for over half (57%) of women aged 65 to 74. In contrast, women aged 85 and over were much more likely than their younger counterparts to be living with members of their extended family. That year, 15% of women aged 85 and over, compared with 6% of those aged 65 to 74, were living with members of their extended family.


Many Live Alone

While most senior women live with their family, a substantial number live alone. In 2001, almost 800,000 women aged 65 and over, 38% of all senior women, were living on their own. In contrast, only 17% of men aged 65 and over lived alone. Older senior women are particularly likely to live alone. In fact, in 2001, 59% of all women aged 85 and over and 47% of those aged 75 to 84 lived alone, compared with 29% of women aged 65 to 74. As well, at all ages, senior women were generally twice as likely as their male counterparts to live alone.


Family Status of Foreign-Born Senior Women Differs

There are some interesting differences in the family status of foreign-born senior women and those born in Canada. In particular, senior female immigrants, and especially recent arrivals, are far more likely than other women aged 65 and over to live with members of their extended family. In 2001, 35% of all female immigrants aged 65 and over who had arrived in Canada in the previous decade lived with members of their extended family, compared with 13% of all senior foreign-born women and just 5% of female seniors born in Canada. At the same time, senior foreign-born women are less likely than those born in Canada to live alone. In 2001, 31% of foreign-born women aged 65 and over, versus 41% of their counterparts born in Canada, lived alone. And among senior foreign-born women, recent arrivals are the least likely to live alone. That year, just 12% of immigrant women aged 65 and over who arrived in Canada in the 1990s lived by themselves.


Seniors Living in an Institution

While most senior women live in a private household, a substantial number live in an institution. In 2001, over 200,000 women aged 65 and over—9% of all senior women in Canada—lived in an institution. Indeed, senior women are twice as likely as their male contemporaries to live in an institution; that year, only 5% of men aged 65 and over were residents of an institution.

Those in older age ranges are the most likely senior women to live in an institution. In 2001, 35% of women aged 85 and over lived in an institution, compared with 9% of women aged 75 to 84 and just 2% of those aged 65 to 74. Older senior women are also considerably more likely than their male counterparts to live in an institution. In 2001, 35% of all women aged 85 and over lived in an institution, compared with 22% of senior men in this age range.

Women aged 75 to 84 were also somewhat more likely than men in this age range to be in an institution: 9% versus 6%. In contrast, there was no difference in the shares of women and men aged 65 to 74 living in an institution. Most senior women in institutions reside in special care homes for the elderly and chronically ill. In 2001, 4% of all women aged 65 and over lived in a chronic care hospital, while another 3% resided in nursing homes. At the same time, 2% of women aged 65 and over lived in a seniors’ residence, while less than 1% resided in a religious institution.


Death Rates Among Senior Women Inching Up

The fact that the gap between the life expectancies of senior women and men has closed in the past couple of decades reflects, in part, differences in death rates in these two groups. Indeed, after years of steady decline, the death rate among women aged 65 and over has increased in recent years. Between 1996 and 2004, for example, the death rate among women aged 65 and over rose 3%, offsetting a similar decline in the period from 1980 to 1996. In fact, the overall death rate for senior women in 2004 was almost exactly the same figure as in 1980.

In contrast, the death rate for men aged 65 and over fell 19% between 1980 and 2004, including a 7% decline in the 1996 to 2004 period. Death rates among senior women, however, are still considerably lower than they are among senior men. In 2004, there were just over 4,000 deaths for every 100,000 women aged 65 and over, 18% lower than the figure of almost 4,800 among senior men. In 1980, though, the death rate among senior women had been 46% lower than that of their male counterparts, while the difference was over 31% as recently as 1996.


Heart Disease and Cancer Main Causes of Death

Heart disease and cancer account for almost exactly half of all deaths of senior women in Canada. In 2002, 26% of all deaths of women aged 65 and over were attributed to heart disease, while 24% were from cancer. At the same time, strokes and respiratory diseases each accounted for just under 10% of all deaths among senior women, while 32% were attributed to all other diseases and conditions combined. There have, however, been considerable differences in the long-term trends for heart disease and cancer deaths among senior women.

The death rate due to heart disease among senior women, for example, was 37% lower in 2002 than in 1980, whereas the figure for cancer rose 20% in the same period. As well, the death rate from cancer among senior women has risen somewhat faster than that of their male counterparts in the past two decades. Between 1980 and 2002, the death rate from cancer among senior women rose 20%, compared with only a 4% increase among senior men.

Indeed, whereas the cancer death rate among senior women has continued to rise in the past few years, the current figure among senior men is actually lower than that it was in the mid-1990s. Still, the cancer death rate among senior men is currently over 50% higher than that of senior women, although this difference is down from almost 80% in 1980s. Similarly, declines in deaths due to heart disease among senior women have lagged behind those for their male counterparts in the past several decades. Between 1980 and 2002, for example, the death rate of women aged 65 and over due to heart disease dropped by 37%, compared with a 47% decline among senior men.
Again, though, the death rate due to heart disease is currently still 20% lower among senior women than among senior men, although this difference is down from over 44% in 1980.

Much of the rise in the overall cancer death rate among senior women in the past couple of decades has been accounted for by increases in deaths from lung cancer. Indeed, death rates due to lung cancer for both women aged 80 and over and those aged 70 to 79 in 2002 were about three times higher than in 1980, while the figure among women aged 60 to 69 doubled in the same period. In contrast, deaths from lung cancer among men in both the 60 to 69 and 70 to 79 age brackets actually declined between 1980 and 2002, while the figure for men aged 80 and over was up, but only by 28%. Still, in all three age groups the lung cancer death rate among women is currently well below than of their respective male counterparts.

There have also been increases in death rates from breast cancer among senior women aged 80 and over in the past two decades, while the figures among women in both the 60 to 69 and 70 to 79 age categories declined somewhat in this period. Between 1980 and 2002, for example, the breast cancer death rates among women aged 80 and over rose 22%, while the figures were down 20% among women aged 60 to 69 and 7% among those aged 70 to 79.


The Perceived Health of Seniors

Most senior women living at home describe their general health in positive terms.2 In 2003, 73% of women aged 65 and over said their health was either good (37%), very good (25%), or excellent (10%), while 21% reported their health was fair and only 6% described it as poor. Somewhat surprisingly, there are actually few differences in the likelihood of senior women in different age ranges rating their overall health in negative terms. Indeed, women aged 75 to 84 were about as likely as those aged 85 and over to say that their health was either fair or poor. In 2003, about one in three women in both groups rated their health as either fair or poor, while this was the case for 23% of women aged 65 to 74. In fact, the large majority of women in all three groups describe their health as good, very good, or excellent.


Seniors with Chronic Health Conditions

While most senior women report their overall health is relatively good, almost all have a chronic health condition as diagnosed by a health professional. Indeed, in 2003, 93% of all women aged 65 and over living in a private household had at least one such chronic health condition or problem. This compared with 87% of senior men. Arthritis or rheumatism and high blood pressure are the most common chronic health problems reported by senior women. In 2003, 55% of all women aged 65 and over living at home had been diagnosed by a health professional with either arthritis or rheumatism, while 47% had high blood pressure.

Another 36% of senior women had been diagnosed with food or other allergies including environmental allergies, while 26% had back problems, 24% had cataracts, 18% had a heart condition, 12% had diabetes and another 12% reported they suffered from urinary incontinence. At the same time, smaller percentages of senior women reported having asthma (8%) glaucoma (8%), migraine headaches (7%), chronic bronchitis (6%), or intestinal or stomach ulcers (5%).

In addition, a small percentage of senior women living at home have Alzheimer’s Disease. In 2003, 2% of women aged 65 and over living at home had been diagnosed with this condition. The incidence of this disease, though, is higher among those in the oldest age ranges. That year, 5% of women aged 85 and over had Alzheimer’s, while the figure was 2% among those aged 75 to 84 and less than 1% among those aged 65 to 74. Older senior women, however, are less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease than their male counterparts. In 2003, 5% of women aged 85 and over living at home suffered from this condition, compared with 9% of senior men in this age range.


Senior Women with Disabilities

A substantial share of the senior female population has a long-term disability or handicap. In 2001, 42% of all women aged 65 and over living at home were classified as having disabilities. This was almost twice the figure for women aged 55 to 64, 22% of whom had a disability that year, and well above rates for women under age 55. Senior women were also more likely to have a disability than their male counterparts, 38% of whom had a disability that year. Not surprisingly, the proportion of senior women with a long-term disability rises sharply with age. In 2003, 72% of women aged 85 and over had a disability or handicap, while the figure was 49% among those aged 75 to 84 and 32% for those aged 65 to 74. As well, in each of these age groups, women were slightly more likely than their male counterparts to have a disability.


Senior Women Experiencing Chronic Pain

Over one in five senior women in Canada reports they suffer from chronic pain or discomfort. In 2003, 22% of women aged 65 and over living at home reported they experienced chronic pain or discomfort. In fact, senior women are considerably more likely to suffer from chronic pain or discomfort than their male counterparts, just 13% of whom complained of this problem. The likelihood of senior women experiencing chronic pain or discomfort rises somewhat with age. In 2003, 24% of women aged 75 and over living at home suffered from chronic pain, compared with 20% of those aged 65 to 74. Again, women were far more likely than their male counterparts to report suffering from chronic pain or discomfort in both age ranges.


Senior Women Suffering Injuries

Somewhat surprisingly, senior women are no more likely than those in younger age groups to suffer injuries serious enough to limit normal activities. In 2003, 9% of all women aged 65 and over suffered such an injury, the same figure as for women aged 55 to 64 and slightly below that for women between the ages of 25 and 54, 10% of whom were injured that year. Senior women, though, were somewhat more likely than their male counterparts, 9% versus 7%, to have been injured in 2003. (Table 11.11) Women in older age ranges, though, are more likely than younger senior women to suffer an injury. In fact, those aged 85 and over are the most likely women of any age to be injured. In 2003, 14% of all women aged 85 and over living at home suffered some kind of injury, whereas the figure was 10% or less for all other age groups. In contrast, both women aged 75 to 84 and those aged 65 to 74 were about as likely as women under age 65 to be injured seriously enough to limit their normal activities.

Senior women in the very oldest age ranges are also about twice as likely as their male counterparts to suffer an injury of some sort. In 2003, 14% of all women aged 85 and over living in a private household were injured, compared with 7% of senior men in this age category. In fact, while women aged 85 and over were far more likely than other senior women to be injured, senior men aged 85 and over were no more likely to be injured than other senior men.


Many Participate in Physical Activities

While many senior women have some form of health-related limitation, half of them regularly participate in some form of physical activity. In 2003, 50% of all women aged 65 and over reported they took part in some form of physical activity on a regular basis, while another 12% said they did so occasionally. At the same time, though, almost one in three (32%) senior women only infrequently participated in physical activities Senior women are somewhat less likely than either younger women or senior men to participate in regular physical activities. In 2003, 50% of women aged 65 and over were regular participants in some form of physical activity, whereas the figure was around 65% or higher among women in age ranges under 65. At the same time, almost 60% of men aged 65 and over indicated they regularly participated in physical activities.


Low Levels of Educational Attainment

Senior women have relatively low levels of formal education. As of 2001, only 5% of all women aged 65 and over had a university degree, compared with 15% of women aged 45 to 64 and 23% of those between the ages of 25 and 44. Senior women are also considerably less likely than their male counterparts to be university graduates. In 2001, 5% of women aged 65 and over had a degree, versus 11% of senior men. The difference between the proportions of senior women and men with university degrees, however, will likely decline in the future as this gap is smaller among men and women in age groups under age 65; indeed, women make up the majority of all university students in Canada today.

While senior women are less likely than their male counterparts to have a university degree, they are more likely to have a diploma or certificate from a community college. In 2001, 11% of all women aged 65 and over, versus 8% of senior men, had completed a college program. The majority of today’s senior women, though, never completed high school. In 2001, 60% of all women aged 65 and over had not completed high school. As well, these women were more likely than senior men to have not graduated from high school. It should be pointed out, though, that the educational opportunities and facilities that were available to today’s seniors when they were young were considerably more limited than they were for subsequent generations. As a result, the educational attainment levels of seniors will be greater in the future than they are today, just as today’s seniors are actually better educated than seniors were in the past.


Internet Usage Among Senior Women

Relatively few senior women use the Internet. In 2003, just 14% of women aged 65 and over reported using the Internet in the previous 12 months, compared with 63% of women aged 45 to 64, 84% of those aged 25 to 44 and 94% of those aged 15 to 24. Senior women were also only about a half as likely as men aged 65 and over to report using the Internet in the previous year.

Few Senior Women Employed

Only a small proportion of senior women are part of the paid workforce. Indeed, in 2004, just 4% of women aged 65 and over had paying jobs, compared with over 11% of senior men. As well, there has been little change in the share of senior women with jobs over the course of the past three decades. On the other hand, the proportion of senior men participating in the paid work force declined steadily from around 15% in the mid-1970s to 9% in 2001.

However, the share of senior men with jobs spiked up in this decade to 11% in 2004. A substantial proportion of senior women have never been part of the paid workforce. As of 2004, 17% of all women aged 65 and over, compared with just 2% of men in this age range, had never worked outside the home. This situation will change in the future, however, because women in younger age groups are currently much more likely to be part of the paid workforce than were their senior counterparts.

Indeed, as of 2004, only 4% of women aged 55 to 64, and just 3% of those aged 25 to 54, had never been employed outside the home. A substantial majority of senior women who do work outside the home are employed part-time. In 2004, 63% of women aged 65 and over who participated in the paid workforce worked part-time, compared with 37% of employed senior men.3 At the same time, close to half of employed senior women are self-employed. In 2004, 45% of employed women aged 65 and over worked for themselves, although this was less than the figure for employed senior men, 59% of whom were self-employed that year.

There are also differences in the occupational distribution of senior women and men with jobs. Senior women, for example, were twice as likely as their male counterparts to work in clerical, sales, or service occupations in 2004. Indeed, that year, 50% of employed senior women worked in one of these areas, versus 25% of employed men aged 65 and over. In contrast, senior women were considerably less likely than senior men to work in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and transportation that year; they were also less likely to have managerial jobs.


Volunteer Activities

While relatively few senior women are part of the paid workforce, many stay active in their communities through participation in formal volunteer activities. In 2003, over half a million Canadian women aged 65 and over, 26% of the total, participated in some kind of unpaid volunteer work through an organization.

Women aged 65 to 74 are somewhat more likely than those in older age ranges to participate in formal volunteer activities. In 2003, 33% of women aged 65 to 74 participated in some kind of unpaid volunteer work through an organization, compared with 18% of their counterparts aged 75 and over. In fact, the participation rate of women aged 65 to 74 in formal activities was exactly the same as that for men in this age range, whereas among those aged 75 and over women were less likely to volunteer through a formal organization.

Many women in the latter age range, though, are precluded from participating in these types of activities by physical limitations or ill health. Senior women who do volunteer work tend to devote more time to these activities than younger women. In 2003, 29% of female volunteers aged 65 and over averaged over 15 hours a month on unpaid volunteer work activities, while this was the case for 26% of female volunteers aged 55 to 64 and only around 20% or less of female volunteers in age ranges under 55.


Average Income of Senior Women

Senior women in Canada have relatively low incomes. In 2003, women aged 65 and over had an average income from all sources of just over $20,000. This was almost $5,000 less than the average income of women under age 65, and more than $10,000 less, on average, than senior men. The real incomes of senior women, however, have risen faster than those of other groups since the early 1980s. Indeed, the average annual income of women aged 65 and over in 2003 was 32% higher than in 1981, once the effects of inflation had been taken into account, whereas the figure for senior men was up 24% in the same period, while that of women under age 65 rose 22%. On the other hand, there was only a 2% increase in the average incomes of men under age 65 in this period.


Dependent on Transfer Payments

Over half the income of senior women in Canada comes from government transfer programs. In 2003, 55% of all income of women aged 65 and over came from sources such as Old Age Security (OAS), including Guaranteed Income Supplements (GIS) and spouse’s allowances, and the Canada and Quebec pension plans (C/QPP). In fact, senior women are somewhat more dependent on government transfer payments than their male counterparts, 41% of whose income came from these sources that year.

The Old Age Security program, including GIS payments and spouse’s allowances, accounts for the largest share of the total government transfer payments received by senior women. In 2003, 32% of all income of these women came from the OAS program, including 24% which came in the form of regular benefits and another 7% which came as GIS payments or spouse’s allowances. At the same time, just over one in five of every dollar received by senior women comes from the Canada and Quebec pension plans. In 2003, 21% of all income of women aged 65 and over came from these programs. In fact, senior women received the same share of their income from C/QPP as did senior men that year. In terms of the actual dollars received, however, senior women received, on average, over $2,000 less in C/QPP payments than senior men.

There is considerable variation in the primary income sources of senior women and men. Old Age Security benefits, including Guaranteed Income Supplements, for example, make up a particularly large share of the incomes of senior women. In 1996, 39% of all income of women aged 65 and over came from this program, compared with 22% of that of their male counterparts. Private employment-related retirement pensions also currently account for a substantial share of the income of senior women. In 2003, 26% of the income of women aged 65 and over came from these plans. This was less, though, than the figure for senior men, who got 41% of their total from private employment pensions that year. And in terms of the actual dollars received, senior women got over $7,000 less per person on average from private pensions than did senior men.

Differences in the amount of pension dollars from both public and private retirement plans received by senior women and men result, in part, from the fact that historically women have been less likely than men to be part of the paid work force and were therefore less likely to contribute to these plans. As well, because women’s earnings have traditionally been lower than those of their male counterparts, their contributions, and therefore their subsequent benefits, are in many cases also lower. The differences between the proportions of the income of senior women and men coming from both private and public retirement pensions, though, is likely to narrow in the future as the proportion of women who are working, and in the process contributing to these plans, continues to rise.


Low Income Among Senior Women Down

One of the great success stories of social policy in Canada in recent decades has been the reduction of low income among senior women. In 2003, just 9% of women aged 65 and over lived in an after-tax low-income situation, compared with 27% in the early 1980s when senior women were by far the most likely age group to be considered to have low incomes. Indeed, women aged 65 and over are currently actually less likely than their counterparts under age 65 to live in a low income situation. The share of senior women with low incomes, though, is still twice as high as that
of senior men. In 2002, 9% of women aged 65 and over, versus just over 4% of their male counterparts, lived in an after-tax low-income situation.

The relatively low overall proportion of senior women with low incomes, however, masks the fact that unattached senior women still have one of the highest rates of low income in Canada. In fact, in 2003, 19% of women aged 65 and over who lived alone were in a low-income situation, once taxes were taken into account. In contrast, just 2% of senior women living in a family were considered to be in an after-tax low-income situation. As well, unattached senior women are more likely than their male counterparts to be classified as having after-tax low incomes: 19% versus 15%. The incidence of low income among unattached senior women, though, has dropped sharply since the early 1980s. In 2003, 19% of these women were classified as having after-tax low incomes, down from 57% in 1980.

Notes

1. Projections are based on assumptions of medium population growth.
2. Note that the data and subsequent sections refer only to those living at home and do not include those living in an institution. Given that almost by definition those living in an institution have more health problems than those living at home, these data tend to underestimate the totality of health problems among the senior population.
3. The data in the remainder of this section are from Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey.


Resources

See Health Canada’s Gender-Based Analysis Policy (2000).