Labour Day is not quite beyond sight in the rear view mirror, so it struck my mind this weekend, reading a blog post from Sept.7th in the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal, that caregivers are rarely talked about as a part of the “labour market” and unpaid caregivers, well of course not. Yet stats do exist on unpaid caregivers in Canada; and significantly, personal stories are being shared, if not recorded, every day in conversations.
Does caregiver stress affect the move to long term care? – is this Optimal Aging post by Dr. Maureen Dobbins with its link to the 2012 Statistics Canada study – Caregivers in Canada. This study states that ailing parents were the top recipients of care, with 39 percent of caregivers looking after their own parents and a further 8 percent looking after parents-in-law. Well before the results of this study, I experienced this first-hand, in addition to a time caring for an elder friend.
Caregiver stress is great enough when the caregiving activities are being directly provided by yourself; but even if the caregiving is a shared experience, when you are “off duty” the situation is still top of mind. Some people have the ability to cope with their situation by compartmentalizing it in their mind and/or outsource certain activities and accept it (and yes for some, resent it) as a labour of love.
During concentrated periods of time, it will almost undoubtedly seem like caregiving is your primary occupation, and as it is well known by full time working people, who may also be managing a young family, attention to other affairs can be interrupted. As a result either work performance or personal relationships may be adversely impacted.
Not to forget, this goes for self-employed people too and at some point, earned income may become irregular. In my model designed for those who have crafted a portfolio life with multiple income streams and other unpaid activity, I always make sure that when presented with caregiving, anywhere up to 20 percent of time should be allotted for it within that portfolio. Caregiving like other responsibilities can be episodic in nature and yet very intense for a time.
As Dr. Dobbins’ blog points out, there comes that tipping point moment of a family being “in crisis”; where in-home care, however well supported, is a challenge and a move to long-term care is the option, wait lists considered. Stressful on its own, it is not only the system and processes of all this that needs to be learned and navigated; it is the attitudes, expectations and emotions of the one being cared for that matters. More often than not, this is the caregiver’s main stress point.
One of Dobbins’ key points with respect to this value determination fits nicely here: “The importance and value of informal/family caregivers cannot be overstated – not only in terms of their service to their loved ones, but in taking pressure off overloaded health care systems.”
Even if we don’t include the work of unpaid caregivers in “labour market” statistics, and it may sound less than altruistic to ask, “what is the economic value of unpaid caregiving?”; we still should hold these Caregiver stats, (as estimated as they may be), up alongside paid caregiving employment.
Final thought. Informal caregiving is often used as a substitute for the word unpaid, but when you are in the thick of it, as a phrase – informal doesn’t cut it. So perhaps we should acknowledge that part of recoding a longevity society is to find a better vocabulary for defining the value of caregiving as a core community investment.