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Column: Don’t abandon addicted seniors

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

Most of us know someone who conquered an addiction. Many of us know someone who has lost the battle with drugs and alcohol, and the addiction rules that person’s life.

Employment becomes a struggle, and many end up needing help from Social Services to stay alive. For those who cannot function on social assistance and who continually blow their portion needed for rent, there are is another option: Their money can be held in trust.

In this situation, a third party agency steps in, and social assistance funding for the person is sent to a trustee who pays rent and distributes the money in a way that is agreed upon.

It isn’t a perfect system. No one wants their money to be taken away from them. People do lose some self-determination, but their rent and utilities are paid. While the remaining money may be used for drugs or alcohol, the person still has a place to call home. It keeps them off the streets and provides a measure of stability.

The system works well until a person hits 65 years of age or until that person receives a disability pension, Canada Pension, or Old Age Security. This is when everything falls apart for many substance abusers.

Once the money starts to flow from the federal government, the province moves out of the picture. The person goes from having a small personal allowance to having around $1,200 from Ottawa, with no restrictions on how to spend it. They go from not being able to manage their money in December to having total access to their money in January.

It rarely ends well. Most of the money gets spent on booze (drug addicts don’t often live to 65) until it’s all gone. Then there is nothing. The social safety net that used to be there in the form of Social Services no longer is there, because they now have another source of funding.

Social workers will often tell people to "see if you can work out a deal" with a shelter, which off-loads the problem further. The same thing happens the next month and the month after that. When shelters finally can’t keep carrying them, the burden goes to churches or other non-profit agencies. Shelters are caught between sending a senior citizen with addictions issues out in the cold to die, or enabling self-destructive behaviour.

The federal government sends a cheque. It doesn’t provide emergency support and doesn’t support trustee programs. If there is an emergency, the addicted senior is often out of luck.

While most of us have supportive families, the alcohol breeds a dysfunction for some that leads to families preying on their elders. Some take rent money and evict them days later; others commit fraud; sometimes it has been as simple as a beating and robbery on the day the cheque arrives.

It’s a mess and there is very little done about it.

For those with addictions, right up until they were 65, the system took care of them and did so for a reason. Whether they were unwilling to trust the supports around them or they didn’t have any at all, the system stepped in and made sure they were OK. The day they turned 65, those supports are taken away and, in many cases, it sets them up for failure.

For subsequent months non-profits are left to fill the gap the federal government refuses to fill.

This isn’t a massive problem. There are only a few hundred people using trustee services across Saskatoon and the province pays very little to outside agencies per person (some do it for free). While the supports are relatively inexpensive, the cost of not providing them are huge. Instead of having an apartment to head home to, a bed at a shelter, a mat in a detox centre, or a hospital bed in an emergency room becomes the substitute.

So, yes, the federal government saves some money, and the two other levels of government get to pay for the consequences.

Premier Brad Wall recently told reporters the story of a man who made 150 emergency room visits in a year, at a tremendous cost to Saskatchewan Health. As he said, the guy needed help, but not from hospital emergency rooms.

There are some problems that are easier to solve than manage and the solution for this program is to continue to provide supports that can keep housed those seniors who struggle with addictions and money issues.

The province has done its part. It’s up to the federal government to step up and take some responsibility to provide some supports to help seniors who can’t help themselves. The current system isn’t helping anyone.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

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