In the wake of the 2016 census, researchers say they’re increasingly worried about limited data on a key segment of Canada’s booming senior population.

For the latest census distributed in May, Statistics Canada allowed administrators of nursing and retirement homes to complete a short-form census on behalf of residents. The agency also omitted the long-form census for all “collective dwellings,” which include hospitals, work camps and correctional institutions.

The move has irked some seniors and sparked calls from researchers for Statistics Canada to revise the 2021 census delivery as new models of senior living crop up.

“It’s something I’m concerned about with the aging of our population,” said Doug Norris, chief demographer at Environics Analytics and a census expert. “The data on our elderly population needs more attention than it’s gotten.”

Last year marked the first time that Canada had more people aged 65 and over – 16.1 per cent, or 5.8 million Canadians – than those 14 and under.

Without long-form results, Mr. Norris said researchers will lack crucial data about seniors’ income, ethnicity and education, among other findings. The data would be able to pinpoint demographic trends that have health implications, and shape myriad social policies, including seniors’ housing.

“Depending on the research and topic, it could be very important to include that group [of seniors], especially if you were doing anything health-related,” said Mr. Norris, who spent nearly 30 years at Statscan.

In the 2011 census, 378,000 people were counted in nursing and retirement homes classified as collective dwellings. This year, as in 2011, the short-form census – which captures age, gender, marital status and languages spoken – was distributed only to administrators of such homes.

Many questions on the long-form census, such as employment information, would not apply to seniors in nursing and retirement homes, said Geoff Bowlby, Statscan’s director-general of collection and regional services.

The agency must balance the quality of data, the burden on the population and the cost of the census program, he said. “In balance, this is what we decided would be the best procedure.”

Statscan will carry out consultations for the 2021 census and may reconsider how it tracks residents in nursing and retirement homes, should “that message come out very strong,” Mr. Bowlby said. If the census had been given directly to seniors living in collective dwellings, “there probably would have been some people who wouldn’t be happy with that decision either,” he said.

Claire Blancher disagrees. The 78-year-old said she was shocked and humiliated when she was notified that her residence director would fill out the census for all occupants. “They treated us like people who are incapable of doing anything themselves,” Ms. Blancher said by phone from Gatineau. “It’s degrading and it’s insulting. I couldn’t accept that at all.”

After her husband’s death, Ms. Blancher sold her house five years ago and moved into the Chartwell Cité Jardin retirement home, which offers independent and assisted living. She still drives and enjoys kayaking and cross-country skiing. She called the census delivery method ageist and sent a letter of protest to her director, who advised Ms. Blancher to forward her complaint to Statscan.

“We talked a lot about it here,” she said of her neighbours. “People reacted very strongly.”

Ms. Blancher’s living situation applies to a growing number of seniors and highlights a considerable challenge for Statscan, according to researchers. The agency must differentiate between nursing homes – once the traditional model of senior living – and newer retirement homes, said Roderic Beaujot, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

“The biggest difficulty is that some of them are hazy in between,” Mr. Beaujot said. “Where do you draw the line between a dwelling or individual units within that dwelling, where people are incapable or capable of doing the census?”

There was also confusion among residence directors on how to distribute the latest census, said Jacques Légaré, a professor emeritus in the demography department at the University of Montreal. The 2016 census gave administrators the option of letting residents fill out the census themselves, but many administrators opted to simply pull the information from their own records, he said.

Mr. Légaré cited an example of a residence director who declined to fill out the census form for his residents after a lawyer warned him that it would violate privacy laws. The census, however, is compulsory by law. “We will have missed lots of information from these seniors,” Mr. Légaré said.

The long-form census was last distributed to collective dwellings in 2006, with“mixed results,” as it proved tough to administer, said Mr. Norris of Environics Analytics.

“Hopefully, Statscan will take on the challenge. It’s not an easy one,” he said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Aug. 07, 2016 9:11PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Aug. 07, 2016 9:15PM EDT