Caregivers are Canada’s unsung healthcare heroes

Unpaid, overworked, stressed out and ignored by governments

We all know one. The person who spends their waking – and working – hours dispensing medicine, providing personal care, doing laundry, preparing meals, arranging schedules and getting their loved one to their medical appointments.

They are called caregivers, and their life is no longer their own.

So a care aide called in by a local health facility is a godsend. A care aide offers support to both the patient and to the caregiver in the form of some respite from their normal daily arduous schedule.

Care aides are not caregivers

Care aides provide basic patient services under the direction of a medical professional, assisting with duties such as personal care, nutrition, exercise, hygiene, safety and administration. They are employed in hospitals, nursing homes, or home care facilities under titles such as healthcare aide, nurse’s aide, patient service associate or personal support worker.

To become a care aid requires a post-secondary school certificate or a two-year diploma. Because they are unregulated, care aides have specific limitations on their duties with patients both in hospital and in home settings: they may not administer any medical care, nor can they dispense medications.

A caregiver, on the other hand, is defined by Statistics Canada as someone who provides (do I have to mention often at great financial cost) care to a “family member or friend with long-term health condition, disability or aging needs.” Caregivers receive little or no training and they represent 28 per cent of Canada’s population. Stats Can says a caregiver can be aged 15 or older, though I’ve met some who were even younger.

Natasha Davidson, for example, has been a caregiver to her mother, Dawn-Anne, since she was just 11 years old. She is now 16. Last year Natasha was diagnosed with Lupus. Care aides now visit her home four times a week to help her and her mother out.

Caregivers do it all. They perform all the duties a care aide might, plus they track and administer prescription medication, perform medical care and communicate with health professionals. Most importantly, they usually provide peace of mind or comfort to their loved one because they feel a compelling obligation to do so.

Those unpaid caregivers spend, out-of-pocket, close to $8 billion annually just caring for their loved ones, while supplementing the healthcare system by almost $26 billion more. Furthermore, almost one-third of Canada’s caregivers are also raising their own children, while only one in five is awarded some sort of financial support.

Caregivers often have to quit their jobs, losing their income and investments along with further benefits to their Canada Pension Plan.

In a letter last January to former PEI Premier Robert Ghiz, Nicole Henningsen, president of the Canadian Caregiver Coalition (CCC), noted how caregivers’ contribution to our health and social systems, industry, communities and economy are often overlooked and under-valued. “In order to ensure the viability of this invaluable resource,” she added, “we must act now to support them through (1) recognition programs, (2) access to services, and (3) flexible work options.”

As the system is now, even with respite services from care aides the sacrifice caregivers make and the lack of proper financial support is leading to a high risk of a variety of anxiety-related mental illnesses due to the stress experienced among caregivers.

Pushback from nurses union

Care aides have a proven role in Canada’s home care system. However, they cannot replace the role of a caregiver. It is also unfortunate that care aides are receiving some pushback from the Canadian Federation of Nurses Union, which targeted the increase in the use of care aides as an issue in new workforce designs being implemented in hospitals across Canada.

But while it is to be commended for the role care aides are playing in patient care, Canada’s unpaid caregivers are still our unsung heroes. So why do they continue to be ignored by governments?


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