Niagara’s population is getting older, a trend that has health-care professionals struggling to meet the increasing demand for long-term care, experts say.

“Niagara has always had a very high proportion of seniors,” said Dr. William Shragge, Niagara Health System chief of staff.

“It has a huge impact on us … as a health-care system.”

Information from the 2006 census released Tuesday by Statistics Canada indicates senior citizens – those aged 65 and older – make up 17.7 per cent of the population who live in and around St. Catharines-Niagara. This is a larger proportion than five years ago, when numbers were at 17.3 per cent, and a trend that reflects the continuing greying of Canada.

St. Catharines-Niagara ranks fourth in the country of the urban regions with the highest proportion of seniors.

In Niagara, 1,900 people are on the waiting list for long-term care homes, 900 of whom are waiting for a better spot in their long-term care facility and the rest waiting in their own homes, according to the Community Care Access Centre.

The strain on nursing homes comes not only as a result of the long waiting list, but because of the growing needs of the elderly residents in the facility, said Dan Oettinger, administrator of Linhaven long-term care home, one of the 32 in Niagara.

People are living longer and coming to nursing homes later in life, Oettinger said. He estimates the average age of Linhaven residents to be about 86, up from about 84 five years ago.

“The level of care is much higher than any time in the past and we’re struggling to meet residents’ needs,” he said.

With age comes a higher chance for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and physical and mental disability, illnesses that require much closer care, Oettinger said.

Dorothy Yeager’s husband, Ralph, 86, had been on a waiting list at Linhaven for a year at low-priority status, but said as his dementia worsened, she asked that her husband get a bed as soon as possible. It was still a two-month wait, she said.

Yeager said she and her husband held out in their own home as long as possible before Ralph had to move to Linhaven in April.

“The longer you can carry on and be home – of course, my husband loves home – the better,” she said, while visiting Ralph Tuesday. “You do reach a point where you need assistance.”

The solution to the shortage of long-term care beds is in more supportive housing for seniors, said Dominic Ventresca, Niagara Region’s director of senior services.

“This could help older people who can’t function totally on their own, but don’t need to be in a home,” he said.

The census also indicates baby boomers account for 29.9 per cent of the population in St. Catharines-Niagara – a segment of society that is approaching senior-citizen status.

So, as health-care professionals struggle to meet the needs of aging seniors, they will soon be bombarded with the rash of baby boomers knocking down the door when they hit retirement age, Shragge said.

The aging population also raises concerns in the workforce, especially in health care, which is already stretched to find enough doctors to treat the growing number of patients, he said.

Many people are getting ready to retire, doctors and nurses included, which will hit baby boomers and their elders with a shortage of health-care professionals and fewer people to take their spot, said Dawn Prentice, a Brock University assistant professor in the nursing department.

The census indicates for every one person who retires there will be only one person entering the workforce, and predicts that in 10 years there will not be enough new workers to replace retirees.

“Who are going to be the caregivers at the end of the day?” Prentice said.

When the census was collected in May 2006, the median age in St. Catharines-Niagara was 42.1, compared to 40.2 in 2001.

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