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Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

When our paternal grandfather could no longer live on his own, he came to live with our parents and us. Dad installed a special bed in a first-floor room next to the kitchen, which led to a couple years of wonderful childhood memories, like reading comics together while eating breakfast every morning.

At the same time, it was also incredibly difficult to watch Grandpa slowly weaken before our eyes, and see the emotional strain it placed on our parents.

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It's amazing to think of the great lengths that families go to in order to ensure their loved ones are cared for. About eight million Canadians provide more than 230 million hours a week of continuing care for relatives or close friends who have long-term health challenges.

The strain on family caregivers can be enormous from an emotional, physical and financial perspective.

Last year, the Mental Health Commission of Canada reported that one in six family caregivers in Canada felt very high levels of stress from their responsibilities. Statistics Canada has also found up to 38 per cent of family caregivers experience depression.

Family caregivers perform a critical unpaid public service – and give their loved ones the invaluable benefit of being cared for at home by someone who knows them and is dedicated to their well-being.

There are some great community resources and government programs that help ease the load of family caregivers (see especially the Canadian Caregiver Coalition and the 'Information for Caregivers' portal at seniors.gc.ca). But as our life spans grow longer and government coffers get smaller, the problem of who will care for the most vulnerable people in our society will only get worse. Increasingly, family caregivers will need some care themselves.

This week's question: How can we help each other cope with the strain of caring for our ailing or aging relatives?

THE EXPERTS

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Linda Edgar, author of A New Look at Caregiving: Two Halves of a Whole

"Respite helps a caregiver recharge and relax. Create a roster of supportive family and friends who can facilitate time-outs on a weekly basis to protect the caregiver's body and mind. Help the caregiver savour two treats every day, such as a piece of great chocolate and some of their favourite music."

Linda Duxbury, lead researcher for the coming National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving

"Elder care is the new child care. Recognizing this, employers should offer workers access to psychological counselling and networks of other caregivers. Compressed workweeks are helpful, since support services for the elderly are often only open during office hours."

Janet Fast, co-director of research on aging, policies and practice at the University of Alberta

"Seek information about what to expect and what help is available before you need it. The heat of the moment is not the time to start trying to negotiate with family or navigate a very complex network of services and supports."

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