Opinion

Caring for caregivers: How a phone call can change everything

Canadian caregivers save our healthcare system the equivalent of more than $30 billion every year by providing more than 80 per cent of the care within our communities, yet they remain vulnerable to the impacts of caregiver stress and burnout they commonly experience.

There are an estimated 7.8 million caregivers in Canada who provide care and support to family members, friends and neighbours without financial compensation. This care can take the form of managing medical appointments and medications, helping someone to manage their symptoms, providing or coordinating transportation to and from appointments, shopping for groceries, cooking, cleaning and other daily activities.

Although data from the Ontario Caregiver Organization (OCO) shows that 58 per cent of caregivers are happy to provide care, and 63 per cent say they feel a sense of reward and fulfillment, the impacts of COVID-19 have made the burden of caregiving more strenuous for the growing number of caregivers who have been mobilized to deal with the pandemic.  

Since defining caregiving in Canada remains a relatively new area of healthcare, its value is only now becoming more widely known. As caregivers try to balance paid work or other responsibilities with their caregiving role, the financial, emotional and physical strains of caregiving can leave caregivers feeling lonely and isolated. Caregivers are not the only ones impacted as the effects go beyond the health and well-being of caregivers; it could also affect their ability and availability to maintain the provision of care that our communities need and that our healthcare system relies on. Understanding and supporting caregivers can address some of those impacts before they reach the healthcare system.

Signs of caregiver burnout can include fatigue, physical exhaustion, irritability, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal and feelings of isolation as well as financial strains. They can also include compassion fatigue as family caregivers are often exposed to the same stressors as their care recipient.

A recent Statistics Canada report shows that different types of support (e.g., financial and social) can lessen caregiver burnout and stress. In fact, caregivers with “unmet support needs” experience more stress and mental health consequences.

Ontario has recognized essential caregivers as a priority population for COVID-19 vaccination in long-term care settings, but without proper support networks in place, researchers, advocates and healthcare providers are now asking: Who cares for the caregiver?

Although caregivers appreciate check-ins on their care recipient’s condition, friends and family often neglect to ask them how they themselves are doing. Caregivers have expressed to us how much difference a phone call can make. Asking directly how they are doing, what support they may need or simply engaging in social interaction unrelated to providing care are all things that can support caregivers in their role. Many individuals do not identify as caregivers, whether it’s because of unfamiliarity with the term or because they may view it as an inherent aspect of relationships, family and community, and this little gesture and show of appreciation could help them to self-identify as caregivers and seek help when needed.

Although further research is required to understand the caregiver experience and design interventions that would improve caregiver satisfaction, organizations like the OCO have gathered anecdotal and qualitative data showing that supporting caregivers directly can have a significant impact. A simple call just to say hello, to discuss something that is unrelated to their care responsibility or to offer emotional support and an expression of care can brighten their day, alleviate stress, and give caregivers a much-needed opportunity to turn their attention to their own self-care.

In collaboration with one of the authors of this piece, former caregiver and researcher Sara Shearkhani, the OCO has initiated a Kindness Campaign to raise awareness of the caregiver role, highlight the needs of caregivers and begin fostering circles of support and community care for caregivers. Caregivers may not recognize themselves as such, but we can ease their burden by offering support with simple tasks, checking in with them and initiating discussions about the signs of burnout. Most importantly, if you decide to call a caregiver, this is also a chance to have a conversation about what they may need today or over the longer term.

This phone call is just the beginning. Call a caregiver today.

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1 Comment
  • Louise Manning says:

    I have been a caregiver to my husband for about three years. He was diagnosed with dementia, over active bladder, two arthritic knees, a stroke with a whole bunch of TIAs which left his left side semi useful (he is left handed) and almost deaf. He just turned 84 years old.
    Covid has had no affect on me, except for health measures to follow, for we have been isolated for over two years. We go nowhere except for his care. If I have to go out I am always in a rush to get what needs to be done and rush home. I have no time for myself. I will not place in a home. Homes for the aged are a death sentence right now, due to Covid.

Authors

Maria-Hélèna Pacelli, B.F.A., M.A., is the digital communications specialist at the Ontario Caregiver Organization and is involved in community care initiatives while supporting family members living with health conditions.

Sara Shearkhani

Contributor
 

Sara Shearkhani is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation of University of Toronto.