National Caregiving Strategy Desperately Needed

Female,caregiver reaches around a senior woman and holds her hands

In 2022, nearly 42% of Canadians found themselves in a role they might not have anticipated: caregivers. This unpaid labor of love spans across all ages and demographics, highlighting the pervasive and essential nature of caregiving in our society. While often linked to our aging population, caregiving extends far beyond, encompassing young caregivers and the sandwich generation, who juggle responsibilities for both children and elderly family members while maintaining careers. In the absence of a national caregiving strategy, the burden of caregiving has many far reaching and significant effects.

The Diverse Faces of Caregiving

Caregiving knows no age limits. An estimated 1.25 million young Canadians between the ages of 14 and 25 provide care, a role that significantly impacts their lives, from educational pursuits to social activities. Meanwhile, over 1.7 million Canadians belong to the sandwich generation, balancing the dual demands of caring for both young children and dependent adults. This demographic is often stretched thin, physically and emotionally.

The Hidden Costs of Caregiving

The dedication of caregivers comes at a high cost. One in three caregivers in Canada report feeling distressed. A survey in Alberta found that 73% of caregivers were moderately to severely anxious, and 69% experienced a decline in their physical health. The toll is not just personal but also financial. Canadian caregivers collectively lose nearly $337 million in wages annually and face significant out-of-pocket expenses to provide adequate care. Socially, many caregivers find themselves isolated, with 87% of Alberta caregivers reporting feelings of loneliness.

Despite their invaluable contributions, caregivers often operate in the shadows, unsupported and unrecognized. This situation has far-reaching implications, contributing an estimated $97 billion annually to Canada’s economy while simultaneously draining the workforce due to the high demands placed on unpaid carers.

The Need for a National Caregiving Strategy

The call for a national caregiving strategy is not new. In 2009, the Senate Special Committee on Aging recommended such a strategy, but 15 years later, Canada still lacks a comprehensive national plan. This is in stark contrast to other high-income countries like the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which have implemented national strategies to support caregivers.

COVID-19 underscored the critical role of family caregivers and exposed the weaknesses in existing support systems. Temporary measures, such as the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit, were steps in the right direction, demonstrating that greater support is both possible and necessary.

Drawing Inspiration from Global Models

A Canadian caregiving strategy could take cues from successful models worldwide. For instance, Italy has enacted legislation recognizing caregivers’ rights, making their contributions visible and valued. In Canada, similar legislation exists in provinces like Manitoba, Ontario, and Québec, but a federal approach would ensure uniform rights and support across the country. In addition, the language of any legislation needs to be tightened up by using words like ‘shall’ or ‘will’ instead of ‘should’ which has no real teeth.

Financial support is another critical component. Countries like Australia and Ireland offer caregiver allowances, which help offset the costs and financial losses associated with caregiving. In addition to tax benefits and credits, these allowances provide much-needed financial relief.

Workplace strategies are also essential. Job protection for caregivers, as seen in Japan and Spain, and paid caregiver leave can significantly reduce the financial strain. Programs that promote care-friendly workplaces would further support the financial well-being of caregivers.

Young caregivers, a group often overlooked, need targeted support. France offers school accommodations for student-carers, and Europe hosts an annual conference to address young carers’ needs. A Canadian strategy should include similar initiatives to support young caregivers’ unique challenges.

A Path Forward for Canada

A national caregiving strategy for Canada would recognize the diversity of caregiving experiences and needs, including those of young caregivers, multigenerational families, rural caregivers, Indigenous families, and those caring for loved ones with stigmatizing conditions. By providing comprehensive support, we can ensure that caregivers are not only recognized but also supported in their invaluable roles.

The journey towards a national caregiving strategy is crucial for the health and well-being of caregivers and the communities they support. By investing in caregivers, we invest in the fabric of our society, fostering healthier, happier communities across Canada. The time is ripe for a national caregiving strategy that acknowledges and uplifts the silent heroes among us.