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Policies in Support of Caregivers

More than one in four Canadian adults provide care that complements our health care and social service systems.

But only limited and inconsistent supports are available to these caregivers. The lack of supports places a burden on the economy and negatively affects the physical, emotional and financial health of both caregivers and care receivers.

Policy Objective

The policy objective is to ensure a set of linked measures that recognize the vital role of informal caregivers in the health care and social service systems. These linked actions would directly address the needs of caregivers and care receivers through community supports, financial assistance and workplace provisions.

Current Status

Invaluable and invisible. These two words, more than any others, perhaps best describe the 8.1 million caregivers in this country.

In 2012 (the latest available data), 28 percent of Canadians aged 15 and older cared for a family member or friend with a long-term health condition, disability or aging needs [Statistics Canada 2014]. Age-related needs topped the list, with 28 percent of caregivers assisting elderly parents. Cancer was next at 11 percent, followed by cardiovascular disease at 9 percent and mental illness at 7 percent.

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Depending on individual circumstances, caregivers carry out one, several or all of the following roles. They assist with personal care, bathing, dressing, feeding and grooming. They do shopping, cooking and housecleaning, and provide transportation and coordination of medical appointments. They often perform routine health-related tasks, such as changing surgical bandages or cleaning breathing tubes, for which they have received basic instruction.

These caregiving tasks typically are carried out on a private basis and are generally assumed as a personal responsibility and expense. However, these tasks represent a potentially substantial cost to the public. The lack of support for caregivers means that some are unable to continue in their caregiving roles as their physical, emotional and financial health becomes adversely affected and begins to deteriorate. At that point, many families seek residential or institutional care for the care receiver – often as an undesired and undesirable last resort.

When care receivers are residents in nursing homes or patients in hospital, paid staff carry out the wide range of tasks involved in personal, household and health-related care. Informal caregivers, by contrast, deliver these essential services at no pay. Together they comprise a formidable but largely unrecognized workforce in the country.

In fact, unpaid or informal caregivers provide more than 80 percent of care required by individuals with long-term conditions. Informal workers contribute an estimated $5 billion in unpaid labour a year to the health care system [Fast, Eales and Keating 2001]. One report pegged this figure at closer to an annual $25 billion if all the multiple tasks performed by caregivers are included in the calculation [Hollander, Lui and Chappell 2009].

Despite their crucial contribution, the voice of informal caregivers is rarely heard. There is little formal recognition of caregiver needs in three key areas: the serious lack of community supports and services to relieve the caregiving burden, limited financial assistance to reduce caregiving costs and workplace accommodation to ease caregiver time and financial pressures. This paper explores various policy options that respond to these diverse caregiver needs.

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Sherri Torjman, Caledon Institute of Social Policy

Release Date

May 13, 2015

Release No.