CARP to Governments: Caregivers Already Overburdened

CARP has been pressing governments to recognize the tough challenges faced by informal caregivers. We were asked to comment on a Ministry of Health and Long Term Care research and consultation paper outlining the strategic avenues governments might explore to ensure that caregivers in 2033 are better supported than they are today. CARP welcomes the initiative; Caring About Caregivers: Policy Implications of Long Range Scenario Planning is an exhaustive paper that proposes innovative solutions and makes a compelling case for supporting informal caregivers. So why put off until tomorrow, much less to 2033, what we SHOULD already be doing today? [Editor’s note: we have received clarification that the paper is intended to research ideas that can be implemented immediately as well as in the longrun to ensure that caregivers are well supported in the short term as well as in the longrun.]

In the last issue of CARP ActionOnline, we took on Value for Money in the Health Care System and suggested that we need to look at a new way of doing things to ensure that our health care dollars buy better health outcomes. We know that embracing an aging at home strategy is a cost effective way to preserve the dignity and independence of older adults while minimizing institutionalization and the unnecessary crowding of emergency rooms. We also know that two vital components of this strategy are improved health care delivery and support for family caregivers. The Ministry’s concern is not misplaced: by 2031 the number of older adults requiring formal or informal assistance will have increased by 200%, currently; only 7% of older adults are in institutionalized settings.

However, it is imperative that this not divert our focus away from the need to help caregivers today, in 2009. There are currently 5 million Canadians who provide care to family members or friends, many of them face heavy levels of burden and cannot cope. Family caregivers today are already absorbing an ever-increasing part of health care costs and contributing hundreds of millions of hours of unpaid labour. In 1999, an economic assessment of family caregivers valued their work at $5 billion dollars per year but today, their labour could be worth as much as $12.3 billion per year!

These caregivers are reporting high levels of financial, emotional and health-related stress including lost wages and medical expenses. A quarter (26%) of Canadians reported they had cared for a family member or close friend with a serious health problem in last 12 months. Of these caregivers, 22% took upwards of one month off work and 41% used personal savings. As a result of their work almost 8 in 10 caregivers report suffering emotional difficulties, 7 out of 10 reported they needed respite, 54% reported financial difficulties and 50% reported weaker physical health.

This is why CARP has and reiterates its call for a National Caregiver Strategy. The Ministry’s consultation document confirms the necessity to provide informal caregivers with support in three key areas: financial support, workplace protection and integration with the formal healthcare system. Of interest is the Long Range Scenario Planning Unit’s proposal for community based neighborhood “hubs” that would provide caregivers with information, respite care services as well as resources. The development of large hubs – community based or virtual – is a policy proposal we need to act on immediately.