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How can Canada support informal caregivers?

Canadian pundits often theorize about what binds us together as a nation. Is it hockey? Tim Hortons coffee? Our ability to compromise?

Statistics show that one thing many Canadians share is the role we play as caregivers. In 2012, Statistics Canada estimated that about 8.1 million of us over the age of 14 had provided care to someone in the previous year. About half of Canadian caregivers care for parents or in-laws. What’s more, about 7.3 million Canadians reported providing care for a year or longer, and about 6.1 million of us balance caregiving with regular employment. 

A new white paper, Why Canada Needs to Better Care for Its Working Caregivers, produced by the National Institute of Ageing (NIA) at Ryerson University, examines the financial, social and personal health burdens borne by caregivers in Canada.

Looking at the projections for continuing growth in Canada’s senior population, the white paper states that “an increasing number of Canadians will desire and require care at home. A commensurate number of caregivers will be needed to provide the care. If we do not support unpaid and working caregivers, the personal and economic consequences will be significant.”

The study makes the case that caregivers in Canada do not all have access to the same level of support because “our current health, home and community care systems remain organizationally fragmented, making them difficult to access and navigate.” What’s more, “social benefit programs that do exist remain confusing and inadequate — often leaving them financially penalized, despite their economic contributions.”

Those contributions are estimated to amount to more than $25 billion annually. The NIA notes that this direct benefit to Canada’s health care system is often unacknowledged — a point that echoes the Canadian Medical Association’s call for the federal government to improve awareness of the Canada Caregiver Credit and amend it to make it a refundable tax credit for caregivers.

While noting that some progress has been made in recognizing caregivers, the white paper sets out five recommendations for policy-makers and employers:

  • Canadian governments should develop a common definition to acknowledge the role of caregivers.
  • Health care systems should introduce caregiver supports, including assessments of caregivers’ needs by health professionals; access to training, support services and respite from the formal health care system; and additional funding for home care.
  • Governments should provide financial support for working caregivers.
  • Employers should recognize the challenges faced by working caregivers: they should provide leadership for cultural change to accept and support caregivers, they should offer flexible working arrangements and they should provide benefits — such as employee assistance programs — targeted to caregivers.
  • National standards should be developed that governments and employers can use to measure and evaluate the overall success of programs, services and supports for working caregivers.

The white paper concludes that by introducing better supports for working caregivers, governments and employers will “improve their [the caregivers’] health and well-being, as well as those of their care recipients, and … [will] also help to safeguard and improve Canada’s economic productivity.”

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