Every day, about 28% of Canadians provide care for a family member, friend or neighbour; and nearly half will do so at some point. Although many Canadians with chronic conditions and disabilities need care, the most common needs requiring caregiver help are age related. With 93% of older Canadians living at home, unpaid or informal caregivers provide up to 75% of care services; which equates to about $24–$31 billion in unpaid work annually. The researchers can to do more to acknowledge and support informal caregivers in bearing this burden.
It is time to strengthen support for the 28% of people who provide care for an aging family member; friend or neighbor in Canada, argues an editorial in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal). “Our ability to support informal caregiving remains one of Canada’s most pressing health care and societal issues,” says Dr. Nathan Stall, associate editor, CMAJ.

The pool of caregivers in Canada is shrinking as the aging population increases, while the need for caregiving will increase. Caregiving has become increasingly demanding and stressful as many untrained people provide medical and nursing care, help with daily living and navigate the complexities of the health and long-term care system.

Providing medical and nursing care

Many caregivers are stressed, which negatively effects their mental and physical health and can lead to increased risk of death. More than one-third (35%) of the population; is both working and providing caregiver support; with more women juggling both roles. As well, caregivers often provide financial support to their loved ones and may miss out on full-time employment, raises and other monetary benefits. We must support these people by protecting caregivers from financial and retirement insecurity.
While financial support exists, mainly through tax breaks, it is difficult to access and varies by province. “Addressing this pressing health care and societal issue is undoubtedly complex, but innovative, effective and potentially scalable programs and policies already exist in pockets across the country. It’s time Canada cared more about its caregivers,” he concludes.

Caregiving for older adults

Over the next 20 years, the number of older Canadians requiring assistance will double; yet there is a shrinking pool of informal caregivers. Changes in demographics and family structures are reducing the ratio of caregivers to older adults; and many potential caregivers are unwilling to assume responsibilities or are exiting the role early. While caregiving for older adults can be rewarding, it is increasingly demanding, complex and stressful. The average informal caregiver spends 19 hours a week on caregiving duties, and 1 in 10 provides more than 30 hours of care per week.

Despite little to no training, they are expected to provide medical and nursing care in the home, navigate complicated health and long-term care systems, and serve as substitute decision makers. Many Canadian caregivers report distress, including 26% of those caring for older adults and 45% of those caring for people with dementia. Distressed caregivers experience a myriad of adverse outcomes, including deteriorations in mental and physical health, disruptions in social and family relationships, and increased risk of death.