In Awe Of The Holy Land


Photo Credit: E. Pang

Photo Credit: E. Pang

My recent visit to The Promised Land as part of The Oceania Riviera Cruise: Sanctuary Tours left me in awe and overwhelmed by The Holy Land of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. With 1,200 passengers, most of whom were boomers, The Riviera is a beautiful ship offering an exclusive three-day call at the Port of Haifa, Israel.

Our highlights of the shore excursion to Jerusalem and Bethlehem included driving along the same route used for centuries to reach Jerusalem. Once considered the centre of the world, the capital of Israel did not disappoint with its timeless beauty. We took in a breathtaking panoramic view of the walled Old City from the Mount of Olives. Near the base of the Mount, we also visited the picturesque Gardens of Gethsemane, site of an olive oil press yard that is surrounded by 1,000-year-old trees.

Our walk through the historical Old City was particularly impressive. Entering via the Jaffa Gate, our very experienced and knowledgeable tour guide (who was actually born a Palestinian) took us past some of the most sacred sites in religious history. The colourful Christian Quarter which rests beside a part of the famous Via Dolorosa, actually reminded me of The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. From Via Dolorosa, we embarked on a route believed by many to be the way Jesus followed as he carried his cross to Calvary – the Way of the Cross, as we Catholics commemorate and pray in memory of Jesus’s sufferings every Good Friday. Among the many religious sites we viewed included the golden-topped Dome of the Rock – the third holiest site in Islam – with its stunning blue and gold ceramic tiles. We also went to the Western (Wailing) Wall, the holiest site in the Jewish world because it is believed to have been closest to where the Holy Ark once stood. For 1,000 years, the Jews were not allowed to pray on the Western Wall and now they prayed and cried against the wall with separate entrances and walls of prayer for men and women.

We also rejoiced upon our visit to the newly refurbished and reopened Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was buried on Good Friday. Perched on the hill known as Golgotha, the Church marks the site of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The last station of the Way of the Cross was in the burial site of the Church where thousands of Christian pilgrims lined up every day to see the burial room. According to our tour guide, the site where Jesus was buried is the centre of the world; Jerusalem is the centre of Israel; and Israel is the centre of Europe.

The shrine, known as the edicule and in danger of collapse, had been propped up by an unsightly iron cage since the 19th century. The New York Times reported that for the first time in over two centuries, this sacred edicule has been restored when the shrine reopened to the public two months ago. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the Church. The restoration cost more than US$3 million, mostly financed by a donation from the World Monuments Fund, an American non-profit group. Other funding came from the three denominations and a personal donation from King Abdullah of Jordan.

Our visit to Manger Square and the renowned Church of Nativity in Bethlehem was one of the key highlights of this trip for me. The extraordinary church located in the West Bank, Palestine, was built over a grotto that is believed to be the location of Jesus’s birth. Due to the complex politics between the Jews and the Palestinians, our tour guide from Israel had to hand over his duties temporarily to a Palestinian guide in this territory. The Church’s original basilica was completed in 339 and destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolts in the sixth century. A new basilica was built in 565 by Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor, restoring the architectural tone of the original. The site of the Church of the Nativity is a World Heritage Site and was the first to be listed under Palestine by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The site is also on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.

Our full day in Jerusalem and Bethlehem left us exhausted, but spiritually uplifted and culturally enriched. Whether you are religious or not, Israel and the Holy Land should be on the bucket list of all baby boomers from a geographical, historical, cultural and scientific perspective!

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Boomers Attend More Rock Concerts As They Age


I read with interest in The New York Times that many baby boomers are still boarding buses and trudging through muddy fields upon their retirement to see their favourite bands in action. There are many boomers who have made attending rock concerts their lifetime passion – some of them attending more than 100 shows a year, spending thousands of dollars travelling to concerts.

In fact, concerts aimed at the mature population are big business. According to the music industry tracking firm Pollstar, the six-day music extravaganza Desert Trip, featuring The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney  and Neil Young, took in US$160 million last year. Tickets at US$399 and higher were not inexpensive and tickets to other concerts, such as the Classic East and Classic West, featuring Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, scheduled for New York and Los Angeles this summer, are also selling strongly. A 2015 study conducted by Harris Poll found that 44 percent of those aged 51 to 70 are attending more live shows now than they did in 2005. Of those concertgoers, 40 percent say they want to stay abreast of current pop culture. The New York Times reported that for many retirees, concertgoing is a lifestyle, and not a new one. Now that they’ve retired, many music-loving boomers are now doing more concerts than before because they have the time and the disposable income to pursue their passion.

So long as they still have the stamina, aging concertgoers are willing to navigate through large crowds in the summer sun from morning till dusk two or three days in a row. There is a misconception that only millennials go to concerts because they love loud music and huge crowds and they value experience over material things. But boomers and seniors also want the same experience, but more from a nostalgic point of view as they were the ones who attended Woodstock, The Newport Folk Festival and the US Festival. The same Harris Poll survey found boomers, like millennials, see “experiences” as an important part of their fulfilled life. According to Billboard Magazine, legacy artists, in particular, drew more boomers among concertgoers – The Rolling Stones, The Eagles and Paul McCartney who were among the top-grossing tours of 2014.

In Canada, casinos have been so successful at entrenching themselves in the concert marketplace that they are almost indistinguishable from traditional performing arts centres. Baby boomer tastes are the heart and soul of casinos’ entertainment policy. Club Regent Casino in Winnipeg launched a new 1,400-seat theatre in 2014 to help the casino host bigger-name acts such as Huey Lewis and the News, Glass Tiger, The Doobie Brothers and Roch Voisine. Grey Eagle Resort and Casino in Calgary also opened a 2,600-seat entertainment centre in 2014 which hosted acts such as The Temptations.

In Ontario, Casino Rama and Fallsview Casino have long been recognized as the concert venues for big-name musicians. This year alone will see boomer-drawing artists such as Three Dog Night, Kenny Rogers, Burton Cummings, Diana Ross, Santana, Kiss, Donny and Marie Osmond, and Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons at Casino Rama. Fallsview Casino also has an impressive lineup in 2017: The 5th Dimension, Donny Osmond, Art Garfunkel and Chubby Checker, just to name a few. In fact, a trip to these casinos nowadays often does not include any gambling activities at all.

But marketers are making a very sweeping assumption that only legacy artists will be a draw for boomers. They’ve very often neglected the fact that boomers want, not only nostalgic experiences, but they also want to remain young at heart and keep current with the latest in pop and rock music. I, for one, would attend concerts by younger, contemporary artists such as Lukas Graham, Joss Stone and Meghan Trainor. Casinos and concert promoters who start marketing musical acts by contemporary artists to baby boomers will be pleasantly surprised.

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A Friendly Budget For Mature Population


It’s been more than a week after the highly anticipated 2017 Federal Budget announcement and there was hardly any analysis given from the perspective of boomers and seniors. So, I’ve decided to take a stab at it on this blog post.

Many critics said that one cannot look at the budget and dissect it according to age group benefits. But it’s inevitable that each demographic in Canada will naturally review the budget’s impact on their own lifestyle and financial well-being. From the perspectives of boomers and seniors, this budget is not bad even though there aren’t any new policies directly targeting at the mature population.

First and foremost, the relatively affluent boomers and seniors could temporarily take a big sigh of relief. The much speculated increase in capital gain tax – rumour had it that the government would increase the taxable portion from 50 percent to 62 or even 75 percent – did not eventually happen. This does not mean that the Liberals are not looking into a capital gain tax increase soon. So, a word of advice for boomers and seniors who are either planning to sell their investment property or their stocks: hurry up and do it soon before the government changes its mind. There are also no changes made to dividend tax rates or personal income tax rates.

What’s most welcoming news to the sandwich generation is that the new Canada Caregiver Credit in the new Federal Budget will deliver tax relief to those caring for an elderly or infirm family member without the complexity of the old system. There will only be one amount of $6,883 for infirm dependents who are parents or grandparents, brothers or sisters, aunts or uncles, nieces or nephews, and adult children. The Caregiver Credit will be reduced dollar-for-dollar by the dependent’s net income above $16,163 and the dependent will not have to live with the caregiver in order for you to be able to claim the new credit.

According to Global News, the 2017 budget found an extra $720 in spending for people over 65. The budget also earmarks $37.1 billion for the health transfer, and the government is expected to spend $43 billion on it in 2021, representing an increase of $5.8 billion a year. Of course, almost 50 percent of medical care spending goes to people who are aged 65 and older. Moreover, the age credit – which hands out money amounting from $1,069 to $7,125 to Canadians when they turn 65 years old and makes less than $83,427 in net income – still remains intact.

There are advocacy groups for younger generations, such as Generation Squeeze, which protested to the media that the new budget unfairly omitted younger people under the age of 45 even though there were childcare initiatives and a housing strategy designed to give every Canadian a safe and affordable place to call home. But we need to bear in mind that there are a lot of seniors facing huge challenges in their aging years. According to CARP, an organization that advocates on behalf of aging Canadians, over 600,000 seniors are living in poverty, including more than one in four single seniors, most of whom are women.

These are seniors who are having difficulty paying for their retirements when interest rates are low, and that older workers are facing ageism in the workplace and difficulty securing jobs. What I found most disappointing in the Federal Budget is that there are no attempts at embarking on baby steps to introduce a national drug plan. In the end, it’s the sick and poor who are going to suffer most from the lack of a universal pharmacare program.

Boomers and seniors should, however, feel encouraged that a large portion of the Federal Budget is dedicated to investing in the country’s Artificial Intelligence research which will eventually benefit the aging cohort with domestic robotic helpers or self-driving cars. We should also be pleased to hear that the government has a new funding proposal that could more than double Canada’s co-op work placements. The Globe and Mail pointed out that technology companies stand to gain from numerous funding and policy directives, including the three-year, $400 million Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative to boost late-stage capital availability, as well as $7.8 million in additional funding over two years for the Global Skills Strategy to attract outside talent. The Liberals’ budget contains measures that innovation-focused companies hope will make Canada more competitive on the world stage.

Scientists and researchers should also be encouraged by this budget with its commitments to refurbish government labs, renewed funding for stem-cell and quantum-computing research centres and a $125 million initiative aimed at leveraging homegrown expertise in artificial intelligence. I’m thrilled to see that the Liberals are obviously capitalizing on the opportunity for American scientists and researchers to possibly move to Canada in light of Trump’s budget cut of the National Institutes of Health, which spearheads medical research in the U.S. The Globe and Mail also pointed out that in Britain, a recent survey found that 42 percent of academics were considering leaving the country over worries about a less welcoming environment and the loss of research money that a split with the European Union is expected to bring. In contrast, Canada’s budget emphasizes on science and makes a pitch for diversity and talent from abroad, including a $117.6 million to establish 25 research chairs with the aim of attracting “top-tier international scholars.” The budget also includes funding for science promotion and $2 million annually for Canada’s yet-to-be-hired Chief Science Advisor, whose duties will include ensuring that government researchers can speak freely about their work.

On the other hand, the new Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is intended to build on expertise within Canada – particularly in Montreal, Edmonton and the Toronto-Waterloo corridor – and keep a critical mass of top researchers from drifting away to Silicon Valley just as deep learning, a form of artificial intelligence pioneered in Canada, is poised to transform the technology landscape.

An investment in science, research and technology will certainly create more jobs for our talented youth and scientists and enhance Canada’s leadership in the world. Our nation is also currently perceived as a beacon, not only for democracy in the Western world, but also for our openness and our commitment to science. I, for one, am all for such visionary budget measures.

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Women Need To Better Prepare For Retirement


Just on the heels of International Women’s Day, a report from the U.S. National Institute on Retirement Security indicated that across all age groups, women have considerably less income in retirement than men. For women aged 65 and above, their income is typically 25 percent lower than that of men. As men and women age, the gap widens to 44 percent by age 80. As a result, women were 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 and older, while women aged 75 to 79 were three times more likely to fall below the poverty level than men the same age.

This finding is neither surprising nor difficult to understand. In the U.S., working women, on average, earn less than their male counterparts, so they have less money to save for retirement. According to the Economic Policy Institute, American women’s media wage is 80 percent of men’s. Many women also take time off to raise children or care for an aging relative, which gives them fewer years to contribute to a retirement plan.

Canada’s situation is no better. According to new data from Statistics Canada released last week to mark International Women’s Day, Canadian women earned 87 cents an hour for every dollar made by men in 2015. The data, which reflects the hourly earnings of Canadians aged 25 to 54, shows the gender wage gap has shrunk by 10 cents since 1981, when female workers earned 77 cents for each dollar earned by men.

According to Statistics Canada, the ratio has improved, in part, due to rising educational attainment by women. In 2015, 35.1 percent of Canadian women had university degrees, compared to 13.7 percent in 1990. But even education does not completely erase that earnings gap. “Even when they had a university degree above the bachelor’s level, women earned an average of 90 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2015,” wrote Statistics Canada analyst Melissa Moyser in her report. “Women are overrepresented in low-paying occupations and underrepresented in high-paying ones.”

Like their U.S. counterparts, Canadian women are also more likely to work part time (18.9 percent for women and 5.5 percent for men), often because they are caring for their children. When measured by annual wages, Canadian women earned 74 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2015.

According to the U.S. Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, known as Wiser, a non-profit organization dedicated to women’s financial education and advocacy, financial problems in retirement and senior debt arise with insufficient income as a result of lower lifetime earnings and less in savings, costs of family caregiving and divorce. Moreover, women often choose to save for a child’s education over their own retirement, for example, or work in a family business for no pay. Women also live longer than men (81.2 years vs 76.4 years) according to statistics from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. In Canada, women have an average life expectancy of 84 years vs 79 years of men in 2012, according to a report on the Health Status of Canadians 2016 by the Chief Public Health Officer. Living longer and needing more money for the extra years for health care, medical expenses and long-term care needs creates serious problems for women. Running out of money in retirement and managing the rising costs of health insurance remain the top worries for women, according to a new study, “Women, Money and Power,” from the Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America.

The Allianz study also found that many women reported uncertainty about their financial decisions. Sixty-one percent of women wished they had more confidence in their financial decision making, and 63 percent wished they knew more about financial planning and investing.

For older women, the good news in terms of financial well-being is that a large fraction of women are working in full-time jobs past their 60s and even into their 70s, according to a study, “Women Working Longer: Facts and Some Explanations,” by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, Harvard University economists. The New York Times reported that the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by the end of this decade, about 20 percent of women over 65 will be in the labour force.

The same pattern is appearing in Canada as well. According to research released on March 9 by RBC Economics, the labour force participation rates of older Canadian women have increased, with a record 32 percent of women aged 55 and older taking part in the labour force in 2016.

Working longer makes it possible to enhance their retirement accounts and avoid tapping into them for living expenses. Employer-based health insurance also provides a security blanket for women who are working beyond retirement years. The extra years of earnings at an older age also mean that they could eventually retire with a bigger Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) amount.

For financial planners and marketers of financial institutions, the opportunity obviously lies in targeting more women clients and helping them make strategic financial decisions and better prepare for retirement. Women are often the CFO of the household. It’s about time that they take care of their own financial needs and security now.


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Federal Government Needs To Speed Up On Universal Drugs Plan

Photo Credit: Evidence Network

Photo Credit: Evidence Network

Two years ago, I posted an article on this blog entitled “Time To Introduce Universal Drugs Plan Is Now,” saying that the Federal Government seemed to be dragging their feet at the introduction of a national pharmacare program for Canada. With the advent of our nation’s 150th birthday this year, very little has been done.

Canada is the only industrialized country with universal health insurance that does not offer universal prescription drug coverage. Statistics show that one in 10 Canadians cannot afford to pay for their medications. When people do not take the drugs they need, there is a cost to health and to medicare when our hospitals are already overwhelmed.

Now, an official study has just come out in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) which concluded that Canadians and private drug plan sponsors could save more than $4 billion a year if the federal government adopted universal coverage for a group of commonly prescribed essential medicines. The Globe and Mail reported that the study used economic modelling to determine the government would have to spend an estimated $1.2 million a year to provide universal coverage for 117 essential medicines, which accounted for 44 percent of the prescriptions filled in Canada in 2015. Individuals and private plans would save close to $4.3 billion if such a system were introduced, according to the economic modelling used in the study.

The rationale is that the government would be able to use bulk purchasing power, which is why it would cost so much less to cover the cost of those essential medicines – drugs that are deemed necessary for public health – than it would be for individuals and private drug plans. The drugs include those used to treat some heart conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, anaphylaxis and migraines.

Not surprisingly, the federal government is facing increasing pressure to address the rising cost of prescription drugs, but has not committed to a national pharmacare program. The researchers of the study found Canada pays substantially more than Sweden, New Zealand and the U.S. Veteran Affairs drug program for the same generic medications. According to Dr. Steve Morgan, one of the study’s authors, and a professor at the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, the benefit of having a universal plan is to make sure that nobody is left out in the cold. An earlier research authored by Dr. Morgan found many Canadians don’t take their prescribed medication because they can’t afford the cost.  He found that one in eight Canadians aged between 55 and 64 falls into this category.

One possible reason why the federal government has not yet made a commitment to national pharmacare could be concerns about whether it should cover the cost of all medicines, even those that are expensive or prone to inappropriate prescribing. But this latest study recommended that the government undertake a universal drug program based on an evidence-based list of essential medicines as defined by the World Health Organization.

Ontario’s Health Minister Eric Hoskins has been taking an initiative in leading a crusade to make universal pharmacare happen in Canada sooner rather than later. Two years ago, he seemed to be targeting Canada’s 150th birthday this year as the most ideal date to launch a universal drug plan. But, so far, it does not look very likely that this will happen! In a January interview with the CBC, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said she plans to bring in new rules that would force drug companies to lower the price of brand-name drugs and will work to help lower the price of generic drugs. But relying on drug companies’ initiatives will not entirely solve the problem and will take a very long time. As Dr. Morgan said, this latest CMAJ study clearly show that some sort of universal drug coverage is the best solution and would benefit Canadians without a massive price increase. The Trudeau government needs to show some leadership and take some urgent action as Canada’s population continues to age rapidly.

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