The Cost of Being a Caregiver

A look at caregiver fatigue

What to know about this topic:

In the Comfort Life Spotlight

Over the years, Comfort Life has profiled the effects of caregiving on family members and others who take it on themselves to help an aging family member. Louisa, who cared for her husband, and Karen, who took care of her father, were two of those profiled, who eventually turned to home care for help. A poll from 2009 showed that many sandwich-generation Canadians were feeling stressed by the requirments of caregiving. 

Louisa and Karen

Louise was a spousal caregiver profiled in Comfort Life in 2009. Having worked hard all her life, raising two boys, offering support as her husband built a successful career, and volunteering in the community, she might have thought she could take it easy and at age 70, she might have been reaping the benefits of a life well-lived.

Instead, her golden years meant being a virtual prisoner inside her home as she helped her husband cope with the motor neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), aka Lou Gehrig's disease.

"Some people go so heavily into the role [of caregiving] that they end up being consumed by it," says Mona Munro, a social worker at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto. "Sometimes people have a hard time accepting their limitations."

As noted by one professional care provider, hiring help "gives the caregiver a chance to get away and know their loved one is safe… A lot of times they are at the end of their rope."

Karen took care of her ailing father for many years before finally turning to home care.

If she knew then what she knew later, she says, "I would have changed how I did everything right from the very moment I realized what was happening to me."

Like many caregivers, Karen suffered from the burnout and frustration she later realized was simply due to "lack of knowledge, tremendous sorrow and the feeling that society doesn't really care." As she told us, "You feel pretty isolated as a caregiver… Just trying to take it day by day doesn't help anybody. When it's all over you want to be able to look back and say, 'I did the best that I could, I looked after my mom and dad, I'm proud of what I did'."

Poll of Canadians

A poll as early as 2009 showed that caregivers, even if they were "happy to help" parents, often felt stressed by the emotional requirements of care. Almost half of respondents (46%) felt "very good" about the opportunity to help their parents, along with their ability to do so. But on another hand, over half (51%) admitted that the emotional demands of their parents were a source of stress. And nearly one third admitted that their responsibilities to parents resulted in lost time at work. In cases like this, people's natural tendency to balk at costs of home care may be illogical. If hired care in the home helps relieve stress, reduce lost work time and improves relations, it can be well worth it for family and the seniors they are caring for.

A poll by the Investors Group as early as 2009, showed that baby boomers in the caregiver role are spending significant time and money to care for their aging parents. While this might seem like quantifiable cause for resentment, those polled said that it was not.

The results of the poll show that of adults in the 43 to 63 age range, approximately 70% have at least one living parent or parent-in-law. Of this seventy percentile, one in three are contributing to their parents' care in one way or another.

The ways in which they are providing care can take several different forms, including trips to the doctor's office. The average time and money spent on this care was rather significant, according to the results of the poll. Average traveling time for caregivers was 225 km per month; average hours spent providing help to parents was 42 - in other words, a full work week.

In addition, four in ten caregivers is providing financial aid to their parents. according to the 2009 poll. Respondents' average declaration of support for their parents was $498 per month.

These adult children of aging parents committed time to their parents in a variety of activities, including relatively commonplace activities like providing simple companionship through regular visits (65 per cent) and regular transportation to appointments or social events (64 per cent).

There were bigger commitments as well. Roughly 55 per cent of respondents provided either home maintenance or household chores. Of those who invested time or money to care for parents, three in five were doing some part to take care of their parents' finances, including banking and/or investments. Over half of this group was doing some part to make sure their parents' health care needs were being met.

Jane Olshewski, a financial planner with Investors Group said, "Taking care of your parents is nothing new, but we are definitely seeing its effect on boomers’ resources as they approach retirement. As this group and their parents grow older, more and more boomers will need to learn how to cope with these duties."

Happy to Help

Far from being a cause for resentment, the care of parents was most likely to result in an increased bond between the adult children and their aging parents. Two thirds of those surveyed felt that they were repaying their parents for their own upbringing. A little less than half of the respondents (46%) felt "very good" about the opportunity to help their parents, along with their ability to do so.

However, there were many who felt that their contributions were not always well-appreciated by their parents. Over half of respondents (51%) admitted that the emotional demands of their parents were a source of stress. Nearly one third admitted that their responsibilities to parents resulted in lost time at work. As Olshewski says, "Many people may not be prepared for the volume or the emotional weight of their responsibilities."

But in the end, caregiving boomers say the benefits of being on call have proved invaluable. 56% said that their relationships with their parents have improved with the extended closeness. Sixty percent say that they are now spending more quality time together than they otherwise would have.

All in the family

Nearly three quarters of respondents said they share the load with spouses, siblings or other family members. Less than a quarter (24%) reported any stress on their relationships with their spouses.

Contrary to some stereotypes, the number of caregivers who are male is nearly equal to the number who are female. 46% of caregivers in 2009 are male, while 54% are female.

Caregiving and the retirement home industry

Of course, there comes a time when parents will require more attention than children can give. As Marcia Kaye of Comfort Life tells that in caring for her own mother, there came a point where "we invited her to move in with us, but she didn't want to be a burden. Keeping mom in her house became a part-time job and a full-time worry."

Since moving her mother into Park Place Manor in Aurora, her mother "looks years younger and and is as independent as ever. [It] has given us peace of mind we hadn't known in years."

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