Don’t limit caregiver aid to terminal cases

Below is an editorial published in The Chronicle Herald: Opinions on April 22, 2015. Click here to read the article.

Some eight million Canadians, a quarter of the population, are engaged in regular caregiving for family members or friends with a grave illness, chronic condition or disability.

Two million of them are estimated to spend more than 20 hours a week providing care that is sustaining lives, improving the quality of life for those who need this help and saving the health-care system billions of dollars.

A 2009 report in Healthcare Quarterly put the value to Canada’s health system of this unpaid caregiving at $25 billion annually. And this related to the care of seniors only. About a quarter of Canada’s informal caregivers are caring for someone who isn’t elderly.

So the Harper government is doing the right thing — humanely, medically and financially — by providing more support in Tuesday’s budget for some caregivers who are in the extreme circumstances of dealing with a family health crisis in which the necessary caregiving can’t be managed along with continuing in a full-time job.

Starting Jan. 1, Ottawa will budget an additional $37 million annually to improve the Employment Insurance program’s compassionate care benefits. These are paid to people who need to be away from work temporarily to care for a terminally ill family member.

Compassionate care benefits are currently available for up to six weeks in cases where a family member is likely to die within six months. The budget extends the benefit period to six months. And eligibility will be expanded to include caregiving for family members who have a diagnosis of a year to live.

Both changes partly respond to calls from advocates like the Health Charities Coalition of Canada, the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP). They are a welcome recognition that EI rules did not realistically address the hardships of people temporarily thrust into caregiving responsibilities that force them to stop work or to drastically reduce their work hours.

CARP says the requirement for a six-month terminal diagnosis “has been a major hurdle for access to this benefit.” On Tuesday, it welcomed the relaxation of that rule. “But to make it better,” said CARP vice-president Susan Eng, “they should just remove the requirement (of a terminal diagnosis) altogether.”

She is right. Grave health crises in which family caregivers need a temporary leave from work are not restricted to cases of palliative care, to no hope of recovery or to care of the elderly at the end of life. So the compassionate care benefit should not be strictly tied to terminal illness.

There are compelling cases where people need a work leave to care for a gravely ill spouse, child or relative who is at risk of dying but who has a chance of recovery or of a longer life if he or she receives the best care and support.

In such cases, people put heart, soul and everything they have into caregiving because they are trying to sustain and extend the life of a loved one who has a chance of recovering — and probably a better one with their support in coping with treatment ordeals.

Unquestionably, palliative caregiving also demands great compassion and dedication and devotion. But the EI caregiver benefit should not favour one type of crisis caregiving over the other.

It should not make giving up hope of saving a life a condition for compassionate care benefits.