The many faces of caregiving

One in four Canadians – or 8.1 million people are family caregivers.    When asked to describe a typical family caregiver many envision a middle aged woman -a caregiver who supports her aging mother or father by cooking meals, driving them to appointments,  and doing their shopping.   While this may describe many caregivers – it does not do justice to the diversity of caregivers in Ontario.  There is simply no “typical” Canadian caregiver.

Caregivers come in endless varieties.  They include adult children caring for their parents, spouses of all ages caring for their husbands or wives,  parents caring for ill children, and friends or neighbors caring for one another.   Sometimes people care for multiple individuals.  Caregiving has no age limits – from those in their nineties to children and youth.  You may be surprised to know that 12 per cent of youth in Canada are in a caregiving role.

To make matters more complicated, caregivers support people with a wide range of conditions and illnesses.   These include chronic illnesses, such as heart disease or diabetes;  episodic illnesses such as HIV/AIDS;  mental or physical disabilities; and  mental health and/or addiction issues.

Contrary to popular belief, caregivers are almost evenly split between the genders – 54 per cent are  women and 46 per cent are men.   However, the caregiving roles often vary between genders.  Woman are twice as likely as men to provide personal care, including bathing and dressing, and assist with medical treatments  and housework. Men are more likely to do home maintenance and outdoor work.

The amount of time devoted to caregiving varies tremendously.   Many caregivers spent an average of  three hours a week in their role, however those assisting a child often provided support for at least 10 hours a week, while those  caring for an ill spouse often spent  14+ hours a week.  This figure increases dramatically as the level of illness and complexity of the person requiring support rises.  In particular, caregivers of those with advanced dementia, at end-of-life, or medically complex children can find their role continuing around the clock.

Caring for a family member or friend can be a short term or ongoing role.   Most caregivers (89 per cent) have been in their role at least one year, with half caring for a loved one for four years or more. Longer-term caregivers were more likely caring for an aging friend or family member, while short-term caregivers were most commonly providing help to a person with cancer.

Despite these varying differences, there is one major attribute that many caregivers have in common –  over 70 per cent of caregivers work.   Caregiving has a major impact on work routines. Approximately 40 per cent of employed caregivers arrive to work late, leave early, or take time off during the day to care for their ill family member or friend.  Caregiving is no doubt a delicate balancing act.   When the equilibrium is lost, caregiver burnout can set in.

Caregivers are encouraged to seek ongoing support for their role – become familiar with community resources and ask for help.  It may take a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to support Canada’s growing and diverse caregivers.