“Prisons were never intended to be nursing homes, hospices, or long-term care facilities”                               

This is the opening line of the Office of the Correctional Investigator’s 2019 report on Aging and Dying in Prison: An Investigation into the Experiences of Older Individuals in Federal Custody.

Throughout the report, the OCI highlights unique challenges experienced by older individuals in prison. CSC later responded to the report with the promise of a policy framework to assist in tackling key issues faced by this population.

As the proportion of older individuals (those 50 years of age and older) in federal custody is growing, this is a particularly important area of focus for government, organizations that support people in custody or transitioning to the community, and our wider community.

People aged 50 and over now account for 25% of the total federal prison population; a 50% increase in the last decade alone (OCI, 2019)

According to the 2019 OCI report:

  • People who become incarcerated have poorer overall health than the general population in Canada, often resulting from barriers and challenges they faced in their life before getting involved with the justice system (e.g. lack of access to quality medical care, poverty, mental health challenges, homelessness, and substance abuse)
    This is particularly challenging for aging populations who may face compounded health, mobility, cognitive, and/or other barriers
  • There are currently few community-based alternatives to prison for this vulnerable segment of the population
  • After spending long periods of time incarcerated, individuals can face immense challenges reintegrating, such as eroded bonds to family and friends, a lack of employability skills, or an inability to navigate through society’s rapidly evolving technology-based systems; all of which are important to safe and successful community reintegration

Given the unique barriers that aging populations face, there is a great need for specialized supports that assist them as they reintegrate into the community.

We spoke with Rob, or Father of Time as many know him, to talk more about the challenges faced by aging populations as they reintegrate to community. This is a topic area Rob has lots of experience with, being a 77-year-old resident at Elliott House, with 32 years of experience in the justice system.

“There are more and more seniors coming out of prison, and there’s a greater need for (our collective society) to attune to that, and be adaptive to better support them.”
– Rob

A bit about Rob: he likes watching documentaries, is passionate about supporting other elderly individuals, particularly those reintegrating into the community, and enjoys playing Bocce Ball and cards. He’s faced many barriers reintegrating to the community, and has seen many other challenges faced by people around his age as well.

Rob is sitting in his new red scooter outside in a parking lot. He's wearing a blue shirt, a white/grey cap, and is smiling cheerfully at the camera.

He’s spent ample time caring for other elderly people in his life: spending quality time to reduce experiences of loneliness, cooking for people who aren’t fully able to cook for themselves, and advocating for improved services that meet the unique and complex needs of aging populations.

As somebody who doesn’t drive, Rob is heavily reliant on public transit and friends. This dependence on others can be really challenging for him, though less so now that he lives at Elliott, which is centrally located with good access to transit. With a 9-inch plate in his left leg and arthritis, walking can be difficult. He uses a walker to remedy this, however, his leg can still give out due to pressure and swelling.

While his mobility challenges have restricted his access to the community in the past – and still does sometimes when a bus doesn’t show up or a friend who committed to taking him somewhere cancels – he’s excited to have recently purchased a scooter. Once he gets the battery replaced, this new mode of transportation will allow him to get around independently, and to play Bocce Ball at a local park.

When asked to share his perspectives on the challenges that older populations face reintegrating to the community, and what we as a collective society can do to support this population, he shared the following thoughts:

As an elderly person, it’s a fearful experience coming out of prison into the community, especially if they’re in an area where they don’t know anyone, or they’re limited in what they can do. 9 out of 10 times, they’ve lost most of their family. They don’t have that connection, so often they’re left to fend for themselves.

When they’re inside (prison), someone is always looking out for them; whether it’s staff or other offenders. There’s great respect for most seniors. They’re always being watched and involved in things like playing cards. It creates an activity for them, and keeps them stimulated.

When they come back to community, there needs to be more community skill development and interactions for them so that they aren’t left to sit and watch tv and smoke all day. A lot of seniors have cataracts, their vision is very poor, they have more health expenses and can find it really hard to make ends meet financially, and aren’t able to find suitable accommodation that meets their needs.

You need to look at the individual’s needs, and gear supports towards them.

It would be great if there were more one story (housing) buildings, with a designated cook and meaningful, everyday interactions with staff and volunteers. Seniors can spend a lot of time at home, so they need reasonable sized accommodations that are comfortable and easy to move around in – especially if they use walkers or are in wheelchairs. And there needs to be staff and volunteers there to support and interact with them, for a few hours each day.

With more and more seniors coming out of corrections, there needs to be more consideration of their unique needs. It’s great that the John Howard Society is there, because they are a major stepping stone for seniors coming out. They’re giving a lot of light to older offenders. Every organization has their good points and their flaws, but the staff are a great group. I love this halfway house.

As Rob illustrates, there are many barriers faced by older populations reintegrating to community. While we don’t have all of the solutions, we do have one exciting initiative underway that’s directed at addressing some of the issues that they face.

We currently are undergoing renovations at Elliott House, which will expand opportunities for aging and mobile-restricted people to safely reintegrate to the community in a supportive and home-like environment.

Our current renovations will not only increase Elliott House’s bed capacity from 25 to 30 units, but will also enable us to better serve individuals with mobility challenges.

“Our renovations are making the main floor of Elliott House far more accessible and inclusive. We’re moving the staff office, building out a living room space, making the laundry room bigger, and making the washrooms more accessible.” – Jerri Morrick, JHS Pacific’s Senior Manager of Infrastructure

This will make staff and residential support far more accessible to individuals transitioning to community with accessibility needs, including people who are older and require additional layers of support – such as assistance with medical care, employability skill-development, and life-skills.

A room at Elliott House under construction, with wooden beams and a red ladder

“The renovations as a whole have really improved Elliott (House). It’s a good place for seniors, so long as they’re somewhat mobile. The house still won’t be accessible to those with high mobility needs, like a wheelchair. Even though there are some drawbacks, there are rooms that are very adequate for older offenders. That’s really good… The kitchen is a dream come true and it’s been really great having two common areas in the house!” – Rob

At a time when the proportion of older individuals in federal custody is growing, the need for accessible housing options upon their release is increasingly essential, and something we are proud to be working towards as an organization.

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