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Aging aboriginals face more health problems, report says

Chronic conditions such as obesity worsen later in life

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Dr. Catherine Cook

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Dr. Catherine Cook

TORONTO -- First Nations, Métis and Inuit of advancing years often have poorer health than their non-aboriginal counterparts but don't receive the same level of health-care services as other Canadian seniors, a report says.

The Health Council of Canada report, released Thursday, says the health of aboriginal seniors can be compromised by poverty, inadequate housing and poor diet, especially for those living in remote areas where nutritious foods may be prohibitively expensive.

Chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease are more prevalent among aboriginal Canadians than the general population, and those disorders can worsen with age.

"The challenge with First Nations, Métis or Inuit is that many of those seniors have lived in poverty throughout their lifespan," said Dr. Catherine Cook, vice-president of population and aboriginal health for the Winnipeg Health Region and a councillor with the Health Council.

"So the challenges will have compounded in that," said Cook, who is Métis. "For example, if you've been eating a diet that is low-cost but high in carbohydrates, you may have acquired some of the illnesses that are chronic in nature, so you may be further down that spectrum of illness."

Accessing health care can be physically, emotionally and financially challenging for many aboriginal elders, who may have to travel to urban centres for services that are unavailable in remote or isolated communities.

The Health Council says difficulties obtaining care are exacerbated by confusion over which level of government is responsible for which services and for which aboriginal groups.

For instance, First Nations and Inuit people are covered by federal non-insured health benefits, but Métis people are ineligible for that program. The exclusion of First Nations from some provincial programs available to all other provincial residents is also contentious.

"You have a health-care (system) that has completely fragmented service for indigenous people," said Cook, associate dean of First Nations, Métis and Inuit health at the University of Manitoba.

While the Health Council report details the barriers many aboriginal seniors face in accessing health care, it also lists examples of programs begun across the country to provide culturally appropriate services for these "respected and honoured" elder members of indigenous communities.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2013 A13

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