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A national caregiving strategy is coming — what could it mean for Canadians?

June 5, 2024
By Holly Mathias, PhD candidate, School of Public Health, University of Alberta

Credit: Getty Images/ kate_sept2004

In April, as part of Budget 2024, the federal government announced its “intention to launch consultations on the development of a National Caregiving Strategy.” But what does this mean for Canadians?

Although still in the consultative stage, a national caregiving strategy could transform the Canadian care economy and improve the lives of caregivers. Most importantly, a national caregiving strategy will set a standard for services and supports available to Canadian family caregivers, as well as the working environment of paid care workers. This will reduce the inequity of current supports and services across provinces and territories.

As a public health researcher examining family caregiving in rural Canada during the ongoing drug poisoning crisis, and as someone who has previously cared for a family member, this announcement marks a promising next chapter.

Caregiving in Canada

In 2022, approximately 42 per cent of Canadians provided unpaid care to a loved one. There is a gendered element to care, with over half of all women in Canada providing unpaid care.

Caregiving is typically linked to Canada’s aging population; however, there is growing recognition that caregivers care for people of all ages and are of all ages themselves. It is estimated that 1.25 million young Canadians between 14 and 25 years old are caregivers and over 1.7 million Canadians are “sandwich generation” carers who provide care for both young children and care-dependent adults.

Many Canadians provide care for the people they love, but caregiving can be physically and emotionally taxing. One in three Canadian caregivers have indicated they are distressed. A 2021 survey among Alberta caregivers found that 73 per cent were moderately to severely anxious and 69 per cent reported a decline in their physical health. This is not surprising, as researchers have declared unpaid family caregiving as a global public health issue.

Caregivers also experience social and financial challenges. In 2022, Canadian caregivers provided an average of eight hours of unpaid care per week (range of four to 20 hours/week). The large amount of time spent on caring means time away from social circles and work. In 2021, 87 per cent of Alberta caregivers reported being lonely.

There is also a significant impact on the workforce. It is estimated that unpaid care contributes over $97 billion annually to Canada’s economy. However, this also means that many caregivers spend time away from paid employment. It is estimated that Canadian caregivers lose nearly $337 million in wages every year, all while facing out-of-pocket expenses to adequately provide care.

Why do we need a strategy? Why now?

The idea of a national caregiving strategy is not new. It was first floated in 2009 as per the recommendations of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Now, 15 years later, Canada is one of the few high-income countries that do not have a national caregiving strategy. Countries such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom have generated national strategies to help guide public investment, policymaking, program delivery, and research and evaluation to support the well-being of caregivers.

The time is right for a Canadian strategy. In addition to not wanting to lag behind other high-income countries, the challenges facing Canadian caregivers have become more apparent in recent years.

COVID-19 highlighted the importance of family caregivers to the global economy, the personal toll of caring, and weaknesses in existing health and social services. During the pandemic, the federal and some provincial governments began to implement temporary measures to increase caregiver supports, such as the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit, showing that there is greater capacity for caregiver support.

What could it look like?

A Canadian caregiving strategy may draw inspiration from strategies in other countries. Countries, such as Italy, have created legislation that recognizes the rights of caregivers and makes care work “visible.” The provinces of Manitoba, Ontario and Québec have introduced similar legislation, but federal legislation would uphold rights across the country.

Many countries offer extra financial supports to caregivers. In addition to tax benefits and credits, some countries, such as Australia and Ireland, provide a caregiver allowance. This can help offset out-of-pocket expenses or financial losses associated with time spent away from work.

Other countries have implemented workplace strategies to support the financial well-being of caregivers. In Japan and Spain, job protection is provided for all caregivers. Some countries also offer paid caregiver leave, pension credits or employer programs to support care-friendly workplaces.

A few countries have also started providing young carer-specific supports, such as accommodations in schools for student-carers in France, and an annual European young carer conference. Caregiver supports are also expanded in many countries with national strategies, including helplines, support groups, caregiver education, and mobile apps with resources and guidance. Several countries have earmarked funds to support ongoing research, surveillance and evaluation to ensure care work is understood and well supported with evidence-informed policies and practices.

Ideally the national strategy will acknowledge the diversity of care experiences and needs among Canadian caregivers, including young caregivers, multigenerational families, rural caregivers, Indigenous families, and those caring for loved ones with stigmatizing conditions, to deliver supports that work for all.

Though there is still work to be done to bring a national caregiving strategy to fruition in Canada, the possibility is exciting. A national caregiving strategy would bolster the efforts of caregiver organizations across the country, support the health and well-being of caregivers and translate into healthier, happier communities.

Holly Mathias receives funding from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and University of Alberta.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

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