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Are family caregivers an invisible workforce?

Partners not covered by Newfoundland and Labrador program


By Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

ST. JOHN’S TELEGRAM

Spouses look after each other’s needs, whether it be earning a wage, running errands, cooking, cleaning or just making the bed.

But what happens when one partner can’t keep up their end of the bargain?

Millions of Canadians find themselves in that situation, but their hard work and dedication often goes unnoticed.

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“Being a family caregiver is such an all-encompassing and overwhelming role, yet it is largely a silent and unseen one,” says Adriana Shnall, manager and professional practice chief for social work at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto.

“We need to care for and support our family caregivers and acknowledge the sacrifice and devotion involved in caring for others.”

Life as a caregiver

Tish Walsh of Torbay knows exactly how it feels.

Walsh has been sole caregiver for her husband, Gord, for seven years, since he had a foot amputated after developing a diabetic ulcer. Gord had recovered from a heart attack in 2006, but has since developed other health woes, including kidney failure and prostate cancer.

Tish has to drive him to the dialysis unit in Mount Pearl, N.L., three days a week, and pick him up after the four-hour sessions. Afterward, Gord is usually too fatigued to do anything but sleep.

“When somebody says ‘caregiver,’ the person automatically associates the caregiver as a person that works for a company that goes out to somebody’s home and they get paid to look after someone,” Tish said in a recent interview.

However, Tish is fortunate in some ways. Her employer, Harvey’s Oil, allows her to work from home.

“They’re a wonderful company,” she said.

“I’m so fortunate to be able to come out in my office here at home and sit down and lose myself in my work, because I really love it,” she said. “But on the other hand, I’m so fortunate that if there’s anything wrong (with Gord) I can just get up and walk in there and do that.”

She says she and her husband manage to keep their spirits up, despite the challenges.

“He says he has to keep on trying. Whenever we come upon an obstacle, we need to keep on trying,” she said.

“Like everybody else, he has good days and bad days.”

The Paid Family Caregiver Option

But neither of them have given much thought to getting outside help — at least for now.

“At this stage, I don’t feel that it would be necessary because I can do what I’m doing and also do that. Some days are a little crazy, but I don’t feel at this point in our lives that’s something I would have to do.”

There is, in fact, a provincial program that will pay family members to look after a loved one under certain circumstances.

The Paid Family Caregiver Option was established in 2014.

But it would be of no use to Tish. It doesn’t cover spouses.

“Spouses or common-law partners are not considered to be eligible as providing caring for your spouse or partner is considered inherent by the nature of the relationship,” the Department of Health explained in a statement.

“The exclusion of spouses from the definition of eligible family members is consistent with other jurisdictions that have similar programs.”

Petro-Canada chips in

Finding out what’s available for unpaid caregivers is part of what spurred Petro-Canada to form the Petro-Canada CareMakers Foundation earlier this month.

The foundation plans to spend $10 million over the next five years to bring awareness and support to the essential work of caregivers, providing grants to charitable organizations that support family caregiving, to enhance and amplify their work.

Tish welcomes the recognition, because she knows there are so many people like herself. She’s met many of them at the dialysis unit.

“They don’t know what’s out there and they don’t know how to find out because they’re just not in that mode,” she said.

“It’s like anything else. People have to know what their options are, and the only way people can know what their options are is through the media, in my opinion, because not everyone has a computer. Not everyone knows how to navigate.”

And as Baycrest’s Shnall points out, no one is immune from the reality.

“At one point or another, we will all either be a caregiver or need a caregiver, and it is our duty to care for one another.”