rowing older is a fundamental truth of life and living.  But aging is not a story about decline, of becoming less or making less of a contribution to family and society.  There are more of us living longer and in good health than ever before!

Canadians of all ages, and most especially seniors have the capacity and capability to live in good health, function autonomously and greatly enrich our entire society.  But we must be vigilant and proactive about our health and wellbeing.

Our identities are defined to a large degree by the things we do.  When our ability is diminished for whatever reason, be it a physical or mental change that impacts our function, our sense of self also often changes.  Family and friends may also see us differently.  The single greatest impact on functional ability in older people comes from sensory impairments like the loss of vision.  Every year, more than 50,000 Canadians lose their sight and more than 5.5 million Canadians live today with significant eye disease that could cause vision loss.

“We have the technology”

Despite our fear, the great news is that many of the conditions that result in vision loss and blindness are treatable.  Significant progress has been made in the development of new therapies and preventive treatments for eye diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, retinal vein occlusion, and glaucoma.  In many cases, vision can be preserved or even restored if these conditions are diagnosed early enough.  There is a challenge though.  Comprehensive eye screening and safe and appropriate treatments must be available and accessible to all those who need them.

Scientific breakthroughs resulting in vision-saving preventive treatments are of little value if those who are at risk are not aware that they should be screened, or if the screenings are not accessible to them.  Initiatives like the teleophthalmology program at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Toronto, reaching out to provide screenings for large numbers of disadvantaged Canadians at risk of diabetic retinopathy, is a powerful example of creating solutions to ensure equal access regardless of social and economic status.  But the journey has just to begun.

Simultaneously, improving education is essential to empowering patients in the decision making when it comes to determining the most appropriate and effective treatment for the stage and nature of the condition. Self-determination is vital to a patient’s journey and their lifestyle.  When there are multiple treatments available, as with the anti-VEGF therapy that treat several eye diseases, it is absolutely necessary that Canadians are invested in making an informed decision in their own vision care, independent of issues of cost. 

If we as a society are committed to creating an environment that supports and enhances the autonomy and independence of our citizens as they age, decisions that may limit access to appropriate therapy must be based on scientific evidence and in consultation with stakeholders including patients, physicians, and patient organizations.

We can’t afford not to

Putting older Canadians at the centre of their own care is a moral imperative in its own right, but the benefits extend well beyond the individual.  By changing the narrative of aging and refusing to accept that loss of vision, health, and autonomy are inevitable, we create an entire cohort of experienced, invested, and solid contributors to Canadian society.

This is not a luxury agenda item.  With a rapidly aging population both in Canada and globally, the question of how long older Canadians will be able to continue being active contributors rather than passive dependents may well spell the difference between a period of unprecedented growth and an economic crisis.

We need those healthy, independent, and clear-sighted older Canadians to lead the younger generations into a prosperous future.