Seniors will be receiving a one-time payment of up to $500 to help offset any increases in the cost of living due to COVID-19 — and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today promised to help find long-term solutions to the tragedies unfolding in long-term care facilities.
Seniors Minister Deb Schulte said today that seniors who qualify for Old Age Security (OAS) will be eligible for a one-time, tax-free payment of $300, and those eligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) will get an extra $200.
Those eligible for both will receive $500.
The direct supports will amount to $2.5 billion and are expected to help 6.7 million older Canadians.
Schulte said seniors are facing extra dispensing fees for prescriptions, added costs for grocery delivery services and taxi fees when they might normally take the bus.
“It’s all small amounts, but it adds up,” she said.
Seniors who already are receiving OAS and GIS will receive the one-time benefit automatically; they will not be required to apply for it.
Asked by reporters why the aid for seniors took so long to arrive, Schulte said the government already has announced measures for seniors — including a one-time special payment through the GST credit and the reduction of minimum withdrawals from registered retirement income funds by 25 per cent in 2020.
Pandemic taking financial, emotional toll on seniors
During his daily briefing today, Trudeau said COVID-19 is taking a heavy toll on seniors both emotionally and financially, and today’s announcement is meant to alleviate some of the stress they’re experiencing.
He said there is more work to be done on both short-term fixes and longer-term solutions.
COVID-19 has exposed some “uncomfortable truths” about Canadian society, including how we care for seniors, he said.
“We’ve seen heartbreaking tragedies in long-term care facilities and nursing homes right across the country. Overworked staff. Understaffed residences. Grieving families. There are serious, underlying challenges facing these facilities. And in the coming months, the federal government will be there to help the provinces find lasting solutions,” he said.
The novel coronavirus has spread quickly through many long-term care facilities. About 80 per cent of all COVID-19 related deaths have taken place in those facilities.
Halifax senior Joan McDougall called the situation “heartbreaking” and said it makes her more determined than ever to keep living independently for as long as possible.
“I hope I can put that decision off as long as I can,” she told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.
As for today’s announcement, McDougall said “every little bit counts” when someone is on a fixed income, but she hopes the government comes through with other measures to help seniors.
With instability in the markets, she said she would welcome any measures to help protect investments without penalties.
“With that instability that we’re seeing now, that’s what causes me the stress and I’m hoping that will be addressed to some extent,” she said.
$20M to help counter isolation
The government is also investing another $20 million on the New Horizons for Seniors Program, which funds various community projects for seniors. Schulte said that money will help to mitigate the impacts of isolation with things like virtual exercise programs and tablet laptops.
Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos said the measures announced today will not require parliamentary authority and the supports are expected to flow within weeks.
Conservative seniors critic Alice Wong accused the government of “letting our seniors down” during the pandemic, saying the help is arriving late.
“We have heard that Canadians are looking for penalty-free access to their savings during this crisis. Conservatives put forward constructive proposals to help, including allowing Canadians to make a special one-time tax-free withdrawal from their RRSPs and waiving mandatory RRIF withdrawal,” she said in a statement.
“Conservatives will continue to help Canadians who are falling through the cracks.”
NDP seniors critic Scott Duvall said he is “largely disappointed” with the emergency aid plan for seniors.
“Providing a one-time payment indicates the government has decided the pandemic will only last for a month. How are seniors going to meet their increased costs in the following months?” he said in a statement.
“The government should help seniors with an ongoing increase in their OAS and GIS. We are happy the government listened to us in ensuring that no one is cut off GIS come July. Allowing GIS recipients until October 1 to file their taxes will certainly help seniors who are struggling right now.”
Marissa Lennox, chief policy officer at the seniors advocacy group CARP, said in addition to added grocery and prescription costs, seniors also are seeing free or discounted community services — such as laundry services, meals at community centres and volunteer tax preparation — dry up because of the global pandemic.
She welcomed today’s announcement but urged the government to do more to address the retirement security crisis caused by COVID-19.
“The one-time tax-free payments of $300 and $200 for those who qualify for OAS and GIS, respectively, will serve to support immediate needs around grocery delivery and additional prescription medication costs, but are not solutions for beyond the short term. It’s unclear how long this will last,” she said.
Lennox said many seniors also have seen their retirement savings shrink because of a drop in the stock market.
CARP had asked the federal government to waive mandatory registered retirement income fund (RRIF) withdrawals in 2020. CARP says the mandatory withdrawals increase the tax liability for the year as seniors struggle with added costs related to the pandemic.
“Anything that is withdrawn from a RRIF is fully taxable, and in this unpredictable time, seniors are looking to maximize their cash, reduce their tax liability and maximize their flexibility in arranging their affairs,” Lennox said.
CARP also has urged the government to eliminate withholding tax on RRSP withdrawals for the 2020 tax year and allow two years to repay taxes owed.
The group is asking the government to follow through on an election promise to increase Old Age Security (OAS) and Canada Pension Plan (CPP) payments.
During the 2019 campaign, Trudeau said a re-elected government would provide a 10 per cent boost to OAS at age 75 and a 25 per cent increase to the Canada Pension Plan for widows or widowers.
At the time, the Liberal Party said the OAS increase would give Canadians aged 75 and older an extra $729 each year and lift 20,000 seniors out of poverty, while widows or widowers would receive up to $2,080 in additional benefits every year with the increased survivor’s benefit under the CPP and Quebec Pension Plan (QPP).
Those changes were to take effect in July, 2020.
Asked about those promised benefits today, Duclos said Tuesday’s announcement is meant to provide “quick, solid support” for seniors during the health crisis, and that the government will also deal with financial security for seniors more generally.
Schulte’s spokesperson Scott Bardsley said the government has taken steps to support all seniors – especially those who are most financially vulnerable – and that it has more than doubled the financial assistance promised in the election platform ($3.8 billion, instead of $1.56 billion.)
“While the government remains committed to implementing the policies in our platform, at this time we are focused on managing the COVID-19 public health crisis,” he said.