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“Canada is facing a caregiving crisis that will only get worse without real action.” This stark warning came from the Canadian Centre for Caregiving Excellence (CCCE), as it cautions that a “perfect storm” is brewing when it comes to caring for our aging loved ones.

An estimated 6.4 million Canadians provide unpaid care for family and friends needing assistance with the activities of daily living.

As Baby Boomers age, their care needs grow in volume and complexity – but their caregivers are also getting older. The number of younger caregivers is shrinking, because Boomers didn’t have as many kids as their parents, and it’s getting more difficult by the day to find qualified, paid care providers like personal support workers.

For its new study, “Caring in Canada,” the CCCE surveyed more than 3,000 caregivers and care providers to get a sense of the challenges.

What first jumps out from the report is just how much of the burden of care falls on unpaid caregivers. They “work,” on average, 5.1 hours daily for 4.6 years taking care of loved ones.

The typical caregiver is a middle-aged person caring for an aging parent. Most also have paid work, and often kids to care for, too.

Caregiving duties are many and varied. In fact, there are 12 broad categories of care: emotional support; transportation; meal preparation/housekeeping; home maintenance; managing finances; co-ordination of care; personal care, which includes feeding and bathing; medical treatment, such as wound care; financial support; facilitating social activity; overnight support; and faith activities.

Caregivers typically carry out an average of four of these duties, and that jumps to seven for older caregivers (who typically live with a partner).

Most people provide care lovingly and willingly. In fact, as the report notes, the intimate act of caring is often rewarding.

But it’s also hard.

In its report, the CCCE says there are six key challenges occurring simultaneously:

  1. The steadily increasing demands on caregivers are taking a toll on their well-being. Many are tired, overwhelmed and depressed. More than one in four report that their mental health is fair or poor. Caregivers are literally making themselves sick while caring for loved ones.
  2. Caregiving is, for many, an extra shift or an extra job. According to the survey, more than two-thirds of caregivers are working full-time. Then, on top of that, they do an average of 30 hours weekly of unpaid caregiving.
  3. Caregivers are getting older, and this comes with unique support needs. One in five caregivers are older than 65. In fact, it’s not unusual for an 80-year-old woman to be caring for her 85-year-old spouse. Yet, the survey found that seniors are significantly less likely to access outside support. Most simply don’t know where to get information on hiring paid help, or can’t afford it.
  4. Caregiving creates financial stress. Almost one in four caregivers spend more than $1,000 a month out of pocket providing care. Working-age caregivers (most of them women) often cut back their work hours, or leave the work force temporarily, which affects everything from their income to promotions to pensions.
  5. The paid-care system, as it exists, is not working for care recipients, caregivers or care providers. In short, “the care provider system is broken.” The turnover rate among workers such as PSWs is troubling: One-third of the work force has less than one year’s experience, and the majority of families find it difficult to find qualified staff.
  6. Caregiving looks different across identities and communities. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Culturally appropriate care matters. Caring for a child or sibling is different than caring for a parent; so too is caring for someone at age 18 than at age 80. Yet, programs are often not flexible.

There are, of course, policy solutions to all these issues.

The survey revealed, unsurprisingly, that caregivers have two main needs/wishes: More financial support, and better access to home care.

Our employment policies need to make it as easy to take leave to care for an aging parent as it is to take parental leave with a newborn. Monthly allowances and tax credits are also required to help caregivers cope – and make it easier for them to return to the work force.

Policy responses also need to be done thoughtfully and deliberately, guided by the needs of caregivers, and spelled out in a National Caregiving Strategy, such as the one drafted by the CCCE.

At some point, almost every one of us is going to be a caregiver or a care receiver. We owe it to ourselves to get this right.

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