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opinion

Janice M. Keefe is chair of the department of family studies and gerontology and director of the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging at Mount Saint Vincent University. She is also the Lena Isabel Jodrey Chair in Gerontology.

It is uncomfortable, it is painful, and it is absolutely paramount that each and every single Canadian acknowledge unreservedly that our collective approach to supporting the country’s older population has fallen devastatingly short.

As we grapple with this global pandemic, Canadians are witnessing firsthand a terrifying wildfire spreading rapidly across long-term care residences – the places that house our mothers, fathers, grandparents and our friends. In the majority of these cases, they will live in these homes for the rest of their lives.

What we failed to do was heed the alarm that has been ringing for decades in order to warn of the great danger and searing tragedy that lay ahead.

I, along with my colleagues across the country who focus on analyzing policies and approaches to delivering the best care for Canadians in late life, find no comfort in the curtains finally having been pulled away to reveal the drastic lack of resources and supports available for these vulnerable populations. I can only hope that some transformative good may come from these most unimaginable circumstances.

While there is now, thankfully, urgent attention being paid to long-term care residences – where, as of the end of April, 79 per cent of the COVID-19-related deaths in Canada have occurred – we must also turn our attention and efforts toward other vulnerable older persons and their support networks. These include older people who are living at home and in need of physical, emotional and mental care provided by their family members. With 54 per cent of Canadian women aged 85 and older living alone, the vital role of family is critically important.

Who has checked in on these caregivers lately?

There is some encouragement for older people with significant care needs to remain in their own homes if they are able and decide to do so – it can nurture personal autonomy, community involvement and, perhaps not as loudly promoted, the fact that their remaining at home removes a significant weight from our overburdened public health care system.

We depend on the physical and emotional labour offered by family caregivers to support these late-life Canadians, but we rarely appreciate the sense of isolation these caregivers can experience at the best of times. Imagine their mental state now.

With physical distancing in effect, there is minimal to no interaction with others. Caregivers are often unable to leave the house for basic necessities because they can’t leave their loved one with dementia at home alone. They live in constant anxiety of unknowingly spreading the virus to an older family member who may be at risk due to frailty or chronic illnesses. Respite support and other community-care options may be challenged because of the restrictions. Family who regularly travel across provinces to provide relief to others may no longer be allowed.

As we quickly pivot to address the significant gaps in long-term care residences, we cannot divert much-needed attention away from the invaluable and often invisible family caregivers supporting older people with complex needs at home.

Here is how we can help immediately.

We can offer increased funding to provinces and territories for family caregivers to have their needs assessed; a model embraced in the U.K. and Australia.

We can provide more funding to organizations supporting provincial and territorial caregivers, as well as Alzheimer’s associations offering community services to caregivers through education, advocacy, research and direct outreach. We see this starting in a number of provinces – but it must continue.

We can develop policies to provide more direct funding to caregivers to help them make ends meet. Furthermore, we can make the Canadian Caregiver Credit refundable and not just for use against taxes.

This issue should not only rest on the government’s doorstep. We can all do our part: by helping caregivers in our community and offering financial support to the organizations mentioned above.

These solutions address the short-term need. We will need to come together and share resources and expertise for medium- to long-term strategies for older Canadians who need assistance.

Last month, the federal government announced the creation of an advisory group to oversee accessibility issues pertaining to Canadians with disabilities during this global pandemic. I call for a federal, provincial and territorial committee to be created to develop and execute a strategy addressing the needs of family caregivers; needs that have been overlooked for too long in our system.

These are options I urge the government to consider; what’s not debatable is our need to act urgently. To continue to turn our backs is to abandon the traits that define us as Canadians: our compassion, our empathy, and most of all, our courage.

We can no longer ignore that ringing alarm.

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