Caregivers stressed to breaking point

Seniors advocate says B.C. needs to start viewing supporting unpaid caregivers as an investment in the health care system

There are more than 30,000 seniors in British Columbia who would not enjoy their precious measure of independence without the help of unpaid family caregivers and other volunteers.

However, B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie says thousands of these family caregivers are stressed to the breaking point. Some are “profoundly exhausted.”

In her September report titled “Caregivers in Distress: More Respite Needed” Mackenzie says: “Unpaid caregivers in B.C., most of whom are family members, need more support. She wisely points out that B.C. needs to start viewing supporting unpaid caregivers as an investment in the health care system.

Indeed, in dollar terms these caring volunteers represent a huge investment. The contributions of spouses, family members, neighbours, friends and volunteers is estimated to be more than $4 billion a year. Without their selfless contributions, that cost would fall to governments at the local, provincial and federal levels. However, we are reminded constantly by all levels of government that rising health care costs are becoming an untenable burden on taxpayers.

Mackenzie says the stories she hears are heart-warming and heart-breaking “as unbelievably committed husbands and wives steadfastly and stoically care for their aging spouses.

“There are sons and daughters, some of whom are seniors themselves, demonstrating a deep commitment to keeping their moms and dads at home. I see and hear about the very meaningful fulfillment this caregiving brings, while I also learn of the frustration and exhaustion that caregivers so often experience as well.”

Mackenzie looked at data for 31,000 seniors in this province who are enrolled in the home support system. She found that 29 per cent of caregivers are experiencing actual distress. This means that about 9,000 individuals – each providing an average of 30 hours of care a week – reported being angry, depressed, or in conflict because of the pressure of caring for a loved one.

Our elders’ watchdog rightly characterizes this as a wake-up call because many of these unpaid caregivers are the only thing standing between a senior’s continued ability to live at home and placement in residential care. If B.C. does not find a way to support these caregivers in distress there will be added pressure on the already stressed residential care and acute care system.

Unfortunately, services such as home support have not kept pace with the increase in the seniors’ population. Some are actually decreasing, such as adult day programs and respite beds.

There are times when profoundly exhausted caregivers need a break from their duties. Respite beds, usually located in residential care facilities, are a remedy.

Mackenzie compared B.C. to Alberta, and found B.C. has a 45 per cent greater rate of caregiver distress, yet clients in Alberta are accessing more home support for less complex needs. The Alberta comparison also revealed an opportunity to significantly reduce emergency department visits and hospital admissions by providing high intensity adult day programs.

The seniors advocate says her report contains evidence to support the case that B.C. can be doing more to support distressed caregivers by increasing their access to respite through three provincially funded supports: adult day programs, home support and respite beds.

“We know that increasing these supports will not eradicate caregiver distress. Respite is just one of many possible interventions. However, it is a critical step in ensuring that caregivers receive as much support as possible in the vital and often overlooked work they are providing,” Mackenzie concludes.

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Brian Kieran is a veteran journalist and communications specialist.