Seniors dispel myths about sedentary lives

09/09/04

Despite reports that herald seniors as weak, frail burdens to society, our aging population is breaking those stereotypes, says a University of Alberta researcher in a new Statistics Canada study that finds most older Canadians to be active, happy contributors to society.

"Warnings found in media headlines and delivered by politicians about disasters to be visited upon society because of population aging have blown things way out of proportion," said Dr. Janet Fast, from the U of A's Department of Human Ecology. "Our findings contradict stereotypes of the sedentary, unproductive and dependent retiree couch potato. Yes, those who have made the transition to retirement are spending more time watching television, but they're spending even more time on active leisure and unpaid work. They're also happy about being busy--happier than their employed counterparts."

Fast and Judith Frederick, a senior analyst with Statistics Canada, investigated how Canadians spend their time during later life transitions from paid work to retirement, to widowhood, and to loss of independence. The study uses data from Statistics Canada's 1998 General Social Survey on time use.

The survey looked at such factors as income, living arrangements, time spent on unpaid work, active and passive leisure and self-care activities and quality of life. The findings showed that older people do not fit the stereotype of being "sick, weak, frail, powerless, sexless, passive, alone, unhappy and failing," said Fast, who also leads a $2.3-million study titled "Hidden Costs/Invisible Contributions: The Marginalization of 'Dependent' Adults" funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

"Most of even the oldest of the old are very much engaged in life and differ little from younger seniors on many quality of life measures," she said.

The researchers found that retirees spent more time on unpaid productive activities (volunteer, care and domestic work), leisure and self-care than their employed counterparts. This evidence contradicts previous findings that have been unclear about volunteer work. Overall, 3.2 million retirees spent about 5 billion hours on unpaid productive activity annually. The estimated economic value of these contributions to our society is $60.2 billion each year in Canada.

A small group of retired men and women also continued to hold paid jobs. More than 5 per cent of retired men and 4 per cent of retired women spent nearly four hours per day on paid work. This group of men was among the most at-risk of those making a seamless transition to retirement. The study found that they were almost as time-stressed as their full-time employed counterparts and much less likely than other men at this stage of life to report being happy with their quality of life.

However, Fast said she was surprised to see that those few men who were forced to live with someone other than their spouse because of transitions such as widowhood or poor health were happier than expected.

"This group of men were presumed to be the most socially isolated, to feel trapped in a daily routine, to feel they hadn't accomplished what they wanted in the day and to have time on their hands they didn't know what to do with," said Fast. "Yet, they were almost as likely as married men to say they were happy, so they seem to have adapted to their new circumstances."

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