Episode 4 – Dr. Deborah van den Hoonaard

Deborah van den Hoonaard welcomed us into her office on a bright, autumn afternoon. Her office is cozy, filled with books and family photographs. Open on her desk lay the Living Healthy, Aging Well report by the Premier’s Panel on Seniors. As a sociologist and professor in the Gerontology Department, Deborah is very passionate about exploring the experience of older adults. We introduced ourselves and instantly the conversation turned to our shared appreciation of older adults in our lives and in society. We then settled in to begin our podcast discussion on the process of ‘learning to be old.’

Deborah van den Hoonaard

Deborah discussed with us her concern about the ways in which the aging process is continuously looked down upon, joked about, and even hidden. This affects how people feel, and how they learn to be old. Prior to our interview, Deborah had sent us an op-ed piece that she had written in response to a political cartoon in the Daily Gleaner which referred to New Brunswick’s aging population as a ‘tsunami’ ready to engulf our healthcare system. This piece captures Deborah’s conviction about how problematic it is to portray our elders as a burden, when really, they are a group of people who hold resiliency and wisdom and continue to be involved in our society in meaningful ways. Fortunately, Deborah has granted us permission to attach this piece below (See The Aging Population a Tsunami… Not! by Deborah van den Hoonard below).

It was exciting to engage in a dialogue about how people in our society learn to be old with a woman who is so evidently passionate about challenging the damaging dichotomies such as young versus old. Deborah also questioned the common language of independence and dependence, stating that we are all, regardless of our age, interdependent. Her research exposes the creativity and strength with which older adults meet various challenges and transitions in their lives. She stresses the importance of including the voices of older adults in conversations about aging.

Deborah’s research has focused on the experience of widows and widowers and her findings are available to the public in several books. If you are interested in reading about Deborah’s research, we have attached links to each of these books below. In addition, we have included links to some to Penny Ericson’s report card on the Hospital, along with a recent CBC article highlighting Horizon Health’s response to Penny Ericson’s report card and other sources of feedback related to health care.

The Aging Population a Tsunami . . .  Not!

Op-ed piece by Deborah van den Hoonaard

 I was shocked to open the Gleaner on July 6 and see a political cartoon that portrayed New Brunswick’s aging population as a tsunami about to engulf our health care system. I was shocked because of the inaccuracy of this portrayal. A tsunami comes out of nowhere, and it destroys everything in its path.  Experts have known for a very long time that the population is aging, and we certainly know that the older population contributes a great deal to our province including in the area of health care. Experts also know that population aging will not bankrupt our health-care system.

The population of Canada has been aging for many years, and yet it is nowhere near the “oldest” country in the world. The prophets of doom have been announcing that the sky is falling for a great many years.  We have a very long time to prepare for our population’s aging.  Even so, simply looking at how many people are over 65 tells us very little about the health of that group. In fact, the health of those over 65 has been improving.

A tsunami may destroy everything in its path, but the older population of New Brunswick contributes a great deal to the province.  Grandparents take care of grandchildren; older people volunteer in greater numbers than younger people, and they contribute financially through their taxes. They have also contributed their entire lives to the good of the province and their families. In old age, many take care of their spouses, siblings, and adult children.  No province would ever have the money to replace the work that these people do on an informal basis.

Finally, even if policy makers insisted the above two paragraphs were not true, it would still not be accurate to describe the older population as a tsunami because the increase in costs directly related to it is a drop in the bucket compared to increases due to expensive pharmaceuticals and advanced technology that are not necessarily effective.  Research consistently shows that increases in health-care expenditures related to population aging account for about 1% per year. In contrast, spending on pharmaceuticals has increased over 100%.

Policy makers and many journalists promote this “problem perspective” that blames society’s ills on its older population, encourages ageism to continue, and avoids coming to terms with a situation that is hollowing out our population by forcing its young people to build their lives elsewhere.  Today we have a life expectancy that earlier ages would not have dreamed of as a possibility. How is it that we consider one of the greatest achievements of society a disaster?

Suggested links and topics for further exploration

  • By HimselfBy Himself, The Older Man’s Experience of Widowhood – by Deborah van den Hoonaard


  •  Widowed SelfThe Widowed Self: The Older Woman’s Journey through Widowhood – by Deborah van den Hoonaard


  •  Penny Ericson Report Card on Hospital


  •  A CBC news report from October 25th, 2013


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