A new study is calling for increased support for family caregivers in Canada. Supporting Caregivers and Caregiving in an Aging Canada by Janice Keefe of the Institute for Research on Public Policy addresses the pressing issue of how to care for an increasing elderly population as the baby boomer cohort continues to age. Currently, much of home care is provided by informal caregivers, relatives or friends of the elderly person in need of assistance. About 70 to 80 per cent of care in the community for seniors comes from an informal source.

This, however, may change. If there are fewer caregivers available in the future, “a greater proportion of this support will need to be delivered through the formal system, whether that care is publicly funded or purchased in the marketplace,” says Keefe. The problem is that baby boomers have had fewer children, leading to a shortage of adult caregivers. The effects of this, though, may be mitigated considering “the baby boomer cohort is healthier than the current generation of seniors” and that spouses may rely on each other instead of formal or informal care.

Nevertheless, by 2031, it is estimated that almost 1 in 4 women 65 and over will not have a surviving child to care for them, an 8 per cent increase from 2001. Baby boomers are also, according to a Québec study, less willing to rely on their family for support: “They value their autonomy highly and they expect public programs to help them support it as they age. They refuse to become a burden to their families.”

Concluding that the increased demand for assistance, which will double among the elderly over the next 30 years, would lead to more demand for formal care, Keefe examines current government assistance for informal caregivers. Although 97 per cent of government support for caregivers is provided by the provincial government, the form and amount of assistance varies from province to province. New Brunswick’s Extra-Mural Program, the Home Care Nova Scotia program, and the Manitoba Home Care Program are singled out by the study as some of the better provincial strategies.

At the federal level, there are five tax credits or deductions available for caregivers. These include the caregiver tax credit, the infirm dependant tax credit, the transfer of a personal credit, the disability tax credit transferred from a dependant, and the medical expenses tax credit. Only one of these credits may be claimed by the informal caregiver each year. Moreover, in June 2011, the federal government established the Family Caregiver Tax Credit (effective as of January 1, 2012), a 15 per cent non-refundable credit of $2,000 that can be used as a supplement to any of the other tax credits. Some problems with this system, according to Keefe, are that it gives only small amounts of aid and that many “do not have sufficient income to receive any financial support through these credits.”

Under employment insurance, the compassionate care benefit (CCB) gives workers eight weeks of paid leave and a two week unpaid waiting period to care for a dying relative. The employee would get 55 per cent of what he or she earns, with a maximum of $468 per week in 2011, and is allowed to work to earn $75 per week without his or her earnings being deducted from the benefits. The drawbacks of this system are that the employee must be part of the regular and full-time labour force to receive the benefit, not enough people know about the program, and that it depends on a rigid confirmation by the physician that the patient will die in 26 weeks.

The Parliamentary Committee on Palliative and Compassionate Care (PCPCC) issued the report, Not to be Forgotten: Care of Vulnerable Canadians that also identified the requirements for the CCB as too stringent. They therefore recommend extending coverage under the benefit to a minimum of 26 weeks and allowing coverage for partial weeks (letting the recipient leave for a few days at a time to care for the relative as the need arises). Furthermore, the report advises that the requirement for receiving the CCB be changed from the relative being at “significant risk of death” to “gravely ill.” It also suggests a higher maximum amount to be paid out to the caregiver.

Alex Schadenberg, the executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, told The Interim that there are “very few people who ever claim” the CCB “because the definitions are too tight,” adding, “the system needs to be amended.” He also said the amount of support available is “insufficient.” Moreover, the system is inadequate because it is “dependent on employment” and thus excludes homemakers or people who already sacrificed their jobs to care for children.

In addition, the PCPCC report calls on the federal government to create a refundable tax credit for family caregivers. The already existing caregiver and infirm dependant credits should be refundable for those who have a low income. This would help individuals who would not be able to apply for the tax credit because their earnings are too low to pay income tax.

Besides government aid, there are several non-profit organizations providing support to caregivers by helping them to find leisure time, to take advantage of government programs, and to locate home care services. These include the Canadian Caregivers Association as well as groups at the provincial level (for example, Caregivers Nova Scotia and the Alberta Caregivers Association). Some agencies are directed towards caregivers who assist individuals that suffer from a particular illness such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, these services are not entirely reliant on government for resources as individuals can donate or volunteer at these organizations to help caregivers and the elderly.