As with climate change, the demographic crunch caused by declining birth rates and aging baby boomers is one of those things experts have warned us for some time was on the horizon.
Much like a mountain at the far end of a long plain, we didn’t spend much time worrying about it but they kept telling us it was coming. Now not only is the mountain looming very present on the horizon, we’ve already begun navigating our way up the steep grade and around the winding corners.
The Yukon is not immune to the demographic trend that is affecting all of North America. Our population is aging rapidly. Between December 2005 and December 2015, the Yukon’s population increased by about 19 per cent to 37,566 people. But the number of seniors increased by 82 per cent during the same period.
Yukoners over the age of 65 now account for about 11 per cent of the territory’s population. That means (notionally speaking) about a third of the territory’s population growth over the past decade has been in those over 65.
And the trend is only going to continue. The Conference Board of Canada is predicting that in 15 years, seniors will nearly double and will account for 20.7 per cent of all Yukoners. The board is certainly not expecting that kind of population growth territory wide.
It’s a big chunk of the population with much more expensive needs on a per capita basis than other age cohorts that we are going to have to contend with. Growth in spending on services for older Yukoners will likely continue to eat up a bigger and bigger portion of the territorial budget for the foreseeable future.
This will present a difficult balancing act for territorial policy-makers who are dealing with other potentially expensive challenges (like climate change) in addition to the usual demands for increased funding in other areas.
Despite the astronomical construction and operating price tag, a facility like the new Whistle Bend continuing care facility is necessary. And we may not have time to do things the “new Yukon way” with endless rounds of consultations and studies as suggested by opponents of the facility’s location.
The expansion at the hospital is another project that, in part at least, was made necessary by our aging population. When the project began a needs assessment prepared for in anticipation stated “[t]he effects of the aging population are already being seen… Older patients present with more complex health needs, have longer lengths of stay and are more likely to be admitted to hospital.
“As Yukon’s population ages, the demands on the health care system will increase, impacting the (Emergency Department) as well as the (Intensive Care Unit) and inpatient units and these services are the most expensive within the health care system.”
With these two large projects now underway an open question is where we are going to find the staff to fill them. After all, the population of adults under 65 – the working engine of society—isn’t expected to see the same kind of population growth over time.
Dr. David Storey’s recent letter in the News suggested that in addition to physical space restraints, “clinical nurse leaders and managers are literally pulling their hair out to find people to work” and that “[n]ext week we have no recovery room nurses”. While these shortages no doubt have multiple causes, the strain caused by an increased number of elderly patients will have an effect on personnel. We’ve known for some time that Whitehorse had a serious shortage of family doctors, and Storey’s commentary suggests that the personnel shortage extends to the hospital as well.
It is great to build new state of the art facilities but they will be of little use if we don’t actually have any people to work in them. The Yukon will have to find new ways to lure medical professionals to the territory during a time when jurisdictions everywhere will be competing for the same talent – remember, after all, this isn’t a challenge unique to the territory.
And where will we get the money to pay these new employees? Our transfer payments have already ballooned from $576 million in 2007-2008 to $947 million in 2016-2017. Will transfer payments continue to grow to pay for these growing needs? Will we utilize them effectively? It certainly doesn’t feel like have received more than $350 million in new services in the last decade.
The Yukon is definitely in for some big challenges over the next decade. That demographic crunch they’ve been warning about? It’s knocking on the door.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.