October 2010

Informal caregivers: a challenge for our time

It takes courage to care for a loved one who has lost their independence due to an accident or illness. And there is certainly no lack of courage among informal caregivers! What they do lack, however, is adequate support. Who will care for the caregivers?

It’s a public issue that is just taking shape: with the population aging at the same time as medical advances are making it possible to extend life, even for people affected by serious health problems, a growing number of our fellow citizens will sooner or later find themselves in the role of informal caregivers.

However, even with an increasing number of seniors in need of caregivers, the risk that a person will end up having to care for a loved one struck down by a serious illness goes far beyond simply aging.

And that’s why it’s a good idea to think about it well before the risk becomes a reality.

A clear-eyed look at caregivers

Not just old age

According to a study commissioned a few years ago by Health Canada, fully 70% of people who receive care from an informal caregiver are under 55 years of age. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since many health problems or accidents can lead to a loss of independence at any age. Parkinson’s disease, for example, may strike as early as age 45, and people can develop multiple sclerosis in their thirties.

A very long-term commitment

The data also show that the informal caregiver’s road can be a long one:  almost half of the recipients need care for more than five years – and 30% need it for more than a decade.

A lesson in courage

The same study reveals that informal caregivers are models of courage and responsibility. No less than 85% of them say they can cope with their situation, feeling that it is their duty to look after their spouse, child or parent.

So what’s the problem?

Suffering in silence

The problem is that no one is superhuman, and that years of caring for a loved one can end up taking a heavy toll on the caregiver’s health – physical, mental and financial.

Although few caregivers (barely 6%) are forced to quit their jobs, more than half say that their work has been disrupted. (Employers feel the effects, too, since they have to rearrange schedules, or even replace employees during long periods of unpaid leave.)

As well, close to half of caregivers have to deal with increased levels of stress. Their most pressing problem? How to reconcile their personal needs with the requirements of their situation, and protect their mental health. In fact, emotional support ranks first among their needs, just above professional help. Nonetheless, many of them are very hesitant to say anything, feeling guilty about asking for help for themselves when their loved one is experiencing much greater distress.

As a result, the illness becomes a dual tragedy, and entire families suffer the effects.

Some support, but still not enough

The caregivers’ situation is an issue we need to look at collectively. Fortunately, our governments have begun to adapt the health care system to offer more resources in this area, but many caregivers say that they still have trouble navigating their way through.

From a financial point of view, the government is now offering a larger (but clearly insufficient) helping hand, primarily in the form of income tax credits and deductions. There are also “compassionate care” employment insurance benefits that provide up to six weeks of income to support people who need time off work to take care of a loved one who is dying. That’s something... but obviously doesn’t meet the needs of caregivers who have to look after a loved one for five or ten years.

Individual solutions

These people must draw mainly on their personal finances to provide for the respite they need. But how can you finance such services from your income if, at the same time, your income is falling due to lengthy absences from work?

There is no single answer to that question, but we mustn’t overlook certain financial security solutions that can be adopted before anything drastic happens so that, when the time comes, they can provide dual-purpose financial support by:

  • compensating for lost revenue to protect the family’s quality of life; and
  • covering the cost of professional services that will give the caregiver some respite and psychological support.

Long-term disability insurance, critical illness insurance, and critical illness insurance for children are the three main products in this category. Integrating them into a financial security plan requires finesse and planning. It is your financial services professional’s job to help you do this. Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance… before the caregiver’s challenge becomes your own.