1. Access to Existing Financial and Other Supports for Caregivers Varies Significantly Across Canada
Currently only 14% of spousal caregivers, and 5% of caregivers to their parents report receiving any government financial assistance.4 These low assistance rates have been attributed to a variety of issues including a general lack of awareness of available supports and how to easily access them; the requirements to qualify for financial assistance have also been criticized as being overly restrictive when some programs disqualify spousal partners, neighbours or friends serving as caregivers or those not living with the care recipient from accessing assistance.
Meanwhile, there is growing evidence demonstrating that financial support for caregivers can reduce the probability that their dependents will be admitted to a nursing home by 56%5. With a growing recognition of their overall importance, 93.8% of Canadians have indicated their support for a greater federal involvement in improving financial assistance available for caregivers who support ageing relatives and friends.6
Currently, both the federal (See Table 1) as well as provincial and territorial governments (See Table 2) in Canada provide a variety of financial and other supports for caregivers, although levels of support and eligibility criteria are not standardized across Canada. For example, Quebec is the only province where tax credits for caregivers are refundable7; while every other Canadian jurisdiction and the federal government only offer non-refundable tax credits that are treated as income.8 However, to claim a non-refundable credit, individuals must be employed and/or earning a sufficient income through others sources to claim this credit as a deduction.
While new commitments to caregivers were recently made in the 2015 federal budget, there has been criticism that they have failed to target those caregivers who are most in need of support. For example, the federal government announced the creation of a new tax-free Family Caregiver Relief Benefit for family caregivers of veterans. While this is a welcome development, veterans are among the best financially supported older adults in Canada.9 It was also announced that the Compassionate Care Benefit would be extended from six weeks to six months. While this goes some way to recognizing the needs of caregivers, it remains a benefit accessible only to those with family members in “significant risk of death” and neglects acute episodic illnesses which often is a greater reason to require working caregiver to take temporary leaves from employment.
In addition to financial supports, respite services are understood to be very important to support the health and well-being of caregivers. Coverage for respite services across Canada, however, varies widely. Many provinces use an individual’s income or income plus assets to assess eligibility of home-based respite services with a proportion of costs to be shared by families; namely: Newfoundland & Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Provinces and territories where no direct costs are incurred by the user for home-based respite care include: Ontario, Manitoba, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, as well as First Nations and Inuit Health Branch programs.10
Finally, some provinces have additionally recognized caregivers through the creation of specific legislation and granting programs, such as Manitoba and Nova Scotia respectively. Manitoba’s legislation is particularly noteworthy as it provides the most inclusive definition of a caregiver, specifically recognizing the important role that friends and neighbours often play in caring for others.
2. Canadian Women in Caregiving Roles are Particularly Financially Vulnerable
Certain subsets of caregivers are particularly financially vulnerable within our society. While men increasingly take on caregiving duties, women are still more likely to take on caregiving duties than men. Women are also more likely to dedicate more time to caregiving duties and are more likely than their male counterparts to spend 20 or more hours per week on caregiving tasks such as personal care (e.g. bathing and dressing).12 We now know that the subset of unpaid caregivers that end up facing the greatest level of financial hardship are older women.
One study of Canadian caregivers found that 73% where women, while 74.9% of them reported a personal income of $39,999 or less annually. Lower incomes, compounded with more missed work and career advancement opportunities or premature retirements, have far reaching effects for female caregivers.13 For example, Canada Pension Plan (CPP) benefits are derived from workforce participation-related contributions, making inconsistent workforce participation or early retirement detrimental to accruing future long-term pension benefits through this program. Furthermore, while a current provision exists within the CPP program to alleviate the financial penalty related to time spent out of the formal labour force caring for a young child, a similar provision for unpaid caregiving for others does not exist14; although, other countries do recognize the importance of this activity in their programs. For example, in 2009 the Swedish parliament passed a law stating, “municipalities are obligated to offer support to persons caring for people with chronic illness, elderly people, or people with functional disabilities”.15
What’s more, the definition of caregiver in the Swedish statutory context includes family members, relatives, neighbors, or friends that, “provide support to someone regardless of whether they live together”.16 We know that caregivers report the financial burden of caregiving as one of their greatest sources of stress, and finding ways to alleviate this issue more equitably should be considered a priority.