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The struggle for work-life balance assumes we have one job that we are trying to balance with personal pursuits and time with romantic partners or kids. But Norah Keating, a professor of human ecology at the University of Alberta, says an aging population means governments, companies and the public have to be alert to the fact many Canadians are devoting considerable time and money to caregiving for elderly parents or relatives.

"Work-life balance assumes there is one job. But a lot of Canadians have at least two jobs. They are in the labour force and providing a lot of care to other family members. This comes with costs economically, even if you are happy to do it," she says.

This has always gone on, of course. But the numbers are growing as the first chunk of baby boomers stream into their sixties. Right now, some boomers are looking after parents, but soon their children will be thrown into caregiving for the largest generation in history. Over the next 20 years, caregiving for parents is likely to swell. "It's a blip, but not a short-term one. It will be at least 20 years that demands ramp up," she says.

The baby boomers are relatively affluent, and so she expects that many of them will have reasonable resources at their disposal for personal care in their senior years. But one of the hidden aspects of caregiving is that it can siphon money out of the caregiver's pocket, as they cut back work hours and pay for care. So when the children of baby boomers hit the age of needing care themselves, they are likely to be less able to pay the costs for their care.

In a report on the economics of care for the federal government by a group of five academics led by Prof. Keating, three areas were identified for the economic costs to caregivers: employment consequences, out-of-pocket costs, and caregiving labour. Reduced or foregone income comes as caregivers leave the work force to provide care, either because the caregiving requires their full attention or they are too exhausted to maintain a balance between work, caregiving, and other family duties. As well, caregivers may have to restrict their hours, could find their productivity suffer, and might have to limit their career ambitions to maintain their caregiving duties. The bottom line: reduced or foregone income, lost benefits, and reduced pensions. "People don't have a sense of what the caregiving will mean for them in the long run. What happens to a woman who at 45 goes to part-time and then has less money or no money for her retirement?" Prof. Keating asks.

The fact that the caregiver in her example is female is not accidental. The report notes that women are more likely than men to be drawn into caregiving, and have an intensity of involvement. They might take on more of the intimate tasks of bathing, dressing, and lifting.

"The people who are most likely to be in economic difficulty because of caregiving are women. They are more likely to give up jobs, spend more money on care, and give more hours to care. It seems to me there is a new double jeopardy for women," she says in an interview. "Given women on average have lower incomes you can see an accumulation of costs to women more so than men." Add to that: Women tend to outlive men, so they are less likely to have a spouse caring for them towards the end of their own life.

Another key factor is geography. In a mobile society, many children no longer live near their parents. So the child who stayed closer geographically is often forced to assume the bulk or all of the caregiving responsibilities within the family. That's the situation in Prof. Keating's family. She flies back to her native Kitchener, Ont. every so often from Edmonton to give her sister a break in caregiving responsibilities for their 100-year-old father. But on a regular basis, it's her sister who holds down the fort.

The costs can be more than economic, Prof. Keating stresses. People who provide care, particularly a lot of hours, are more likely to suffer health consequences themselves. They don't have training in moving or bathing people, and so are at risk of injuries, not to mention stress and fatigue. They are more likely to be seeing a physician and to have a long-term impact on their health.

So be alert to the implications of caregiving, if you slip into such service. And have greater sympathy for colleagues taking on such burdens. But this shouldn't be just an individual concern, Prof. Keating stresses. Corporations and governments must be alert as well.

Direct costs to corporations come in turnover, absenteeism, and additional benefit costs. "The cost of additional health care claims and disability leave specific to employees with caregiving responsibilities has received little attention, but is an emerging concern," the report states. Indirect costs include a lower return on investment in employees when they leave prematurely, lost productivity, the impact on co-workers as absenteeism and loss of productivity occurs, and the impact on clients.

She believes the federal government must expand leaves for caregiving.

People providing end-of-life care can get financial help via the federal Compassionate Care Benefit while provincial legislation can help protect caregivers from losing their jobs. However, the drawback is that this is structured short-term care, similar to pregnancy leave benefits, while the time frame for those who are caregivers to the elderly is quite different as the time frame is uncertain. Obviously improving this benefit will bring immediate costs but she argues that over the long-term, as a country, we would have people in a better position to provide care later in life to our fellow citizens.