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Canada Ontario families feel toll of caring for ailing, elderly relatives: study

According to new finding by Health Quality Ontario, one in three primary caregivers reported last year feeling distressed, angry or depressed, or said they were unable to continue providing support for their relatives.

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The strain of caring for the sick and the elderly is increasingly being felt by family and friends, says a new Ontario report that finds one-third of informal caregivers are in distress – a number that has doubled in the space of just four years.

The new findings were released late Tuesday by Health Quality Ontario, a provincial agency that advises the government and monitors the performance of the health-care system with a range of benchmarks. It found that almost all long-term home-care patients in the province rely on the help of family and friends for emotional comfort, as well as for routine tasks such as grocery shopping, transportation, managing medication and personal care. But one in three primary caregivers reported last year feeling distressed, angry or depressed, or said they were unable to continue providing that support. That's up from slightly less than 16 per cent in 2010.

The finding is the latest in a string of reports that point to a growing need for supports to help Canada's aging population remain at home. It comes at the same time that the Canadian Medical Association is calling for a $3.3-billion federal investment in seniors care and when, for the first time, Canadians over 65 now outnumber those under 15. A report last month by British Columbia's Seniors Advocate found a similar portion of unpaid caregivers in that province were in distress, providing an average of 30 hours of support each week.

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"People are older, sicker, living longer and they are in hospital for a much shorter period of time, " said Joshua Tepper, the chief executive officer of Health Quality Ontario and a family doctor.

In his own practice in Toronto's low-income neighbourhood of Regent Park, Dr. Tepper said he has witnessed the increased burden placed on families as they care for one or more aging relatives – often juggling the demands of work and family across several generations. More than once, he said, children have come to act as translators for grandparents at medical appointments because sons and daughters can't take the time away from work.

Dr. Tepper said the spike in the number also may be a sign of a growing comfort among caregivers to speak up about the pressures they are feeling. "People are being more frank about the impact of caring for a loved one has on themselves without them feeling guilty about it," he said.

In a related finding, the annual report shows wait times for long-term care beds in the province have dropped over the past five years, but there are wide variations depending on where in Ontario patients live, and whether they are moving from a hospital bed or from their home.

The longest wait – more than eight months – is for Toronto residents living at home who are applying for long-term care. The wait for those applying from a hospital ranges from 197 days in the Mississauga-Halton area west of Toronto to 34 days in the health region that includes London, Ont.

The long waits in some parts of the province such as Toronto may be in part because individuals prefer to go to a home that caters to a particular ethnic group, Dr. Tepper said.

The report, called Measuring Up 2015, looks at 40 indicators and includes the following findings:

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  • Ninety-four per cent of Ontario residents have a primary care provider, but half say they are not able to get a same-day or next-day appointment when sick or when they need after-hours care.
  • Timely access varies widely across the province, but it is not necessarily linked to the ratio of doctors to the local population, suggesting, Dr. Tepper said, that other variables such as scheduling and hours of work may be a factor.
  • Over the past decade, suicide rates in Ontario have remained constant despite growing efforts to focus on mental illness.
  • Smoking rates have fallen to 18 per cent in Ontario, the second lowest in the country after British Columbia. Ontario residents are also becoming more active.
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