How caregiving is impacting a generation of Canadians: ‘Unpaid work doesn’t end’

A series of demographic forces reshaping Canada have left many adult Canadians “sandwiched” between unpaid caregiving responsibilities for the generations that come before and after them.

Marci Gray, a Brampton, Ont. resident, feels that particular sandwich through more layers than most people.

The CEO and lead psychotherapist at Gray Matter Health has three growing children of her own, ages 13 to 19, with a typical mix of extracurricular activities and appointments to make.

Her parents and her in-laws get to the point where they occasionally need help shoveling the show or mowing the lawn, the kinds of things that allow them to stay in their house.

Gray says her grandmother Julia Jackson, who turns 106 this year, now needs “24-hour care” from professionals and family to be by her side.

“We always have to have someone around to take care of her,” she says.

Gray says she is fortunate to have a large family, with sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins ​​who can share the time it takes to care for their grandmother. But while the busy mother and registered social worker has built a network of support and coping mechanisms to ease the burden of caregiving, she says it has been a difficult journey.

‘I’ve already experienced the crash and burn in my own life. I already did that when I hit the wall and couldn’t go on and couldn’t go on,” she says. “So I’ve learned from my own experience that that’s not the way to go, that you really have to continue to take care of yourself in order to thrive.”

Millions of Canadians are themselves unpaid caregivers for a loved one, whether it’s a parent, spouse, child or other family member with chronic care needs, according to an April Statistics Canada report.

The agency said 42 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 provided unpaid care in 2022, whether that was for a child under 15 or for a youth or adult with a long-term condition or disability.

But of that group, 13 percent – ​​or roughly 1.8 million Canadians – care for multiple people, usually a child and an older adult. StatCan said the care expectations placed on these individuals make them a “trapped” generation.

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Arthur Sweetman, a professor of health and economics at McMaster University, tells Global News that the wedged phenomenon is the result of a number of converging demographic forces.

Older Canadians are now living longer than before, he notes, just as the vanguard of the baby boomer generation reaches an age where they are in physical decline and require more care.

This is because many Canadians are having children later in life, Sweetman adds. This creates a fragile balance for Canadians in the early years of their careers, balancing the need to care for their children while simultaneously caring for their own parents.

That burden is also falling more on the unpaid side of the economy, as Canada faces a shortage of personal service workers and nurses, Sweetman notes, a vulnerability that came to light during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and which has apparently increased since then.

As more baby boomers enter this precarious stage of life in the coming years, Sweetman says, the need for both paid and unpaid caregivers will only increase.

“Over the next six to seven years, the demand for home care will increase,” he says.

Unpaid care can feel like an “extra shift” at work, according to the findings of a May 1 report from the Azrieli Foundation, the Canadian Center for Caregiving Excellence.

Caregivers provide an average of 5.1 hours of care per day, which is close to the demands of any other full-time job, according to the study based on Army and online polls conducted in the summer of 2023.

Both the StatCan and Azrieli reports highlighted the stress – physical, mental and financial – that healthcare workers bear.

Half of caregivers in the Azrieli survey reported experiencing some form of financial hardship related to the position, while 22 percent said they had to pay more than $1,000 in out-of-pocket expenses each month.

StatCan reported that in 2022, 86 percent of caregivers reported at least one negative impact on their physical health, a higher percentage than those who cared for just one person.

About 69 percent of these trapped individuals reported feeling tired, while 65 percent said they were anxious and half self-identified as being “overwhelmed” by their caregiving responsibilities, according to StatCan.

According to the StatCan data, women (seven percent) were slightly more likely to have a sandwich caregiver than men (five percent).

Digging deeper, StatCan shows a larger gap between the amount and type of care women typically provide than men.

Women more often took on direct care and made arrangements for their costs, while men more often performed indirect work, such as maintenance on a house.

According to the report, women also worked on average eight hours more per week caring for children and four hours more per week when caring for dependent adults.

Ultimately, StatCan says that women who are sandwich caregivers report worse outcomes in their own well-being, finances, relationships and careers compared to men in their situation or those who are solely caring for an adult or child.

Gray says she sees the weight of this unequal burden on her clients and on herself.

“Women tend to disproportionately feel like they are responsible for providing care,” she says. “They feel like they have to take it all and tackle everything.”

This is behavior that she had to unlearn in order to take on her own responsibilities as an informal caregiver, she says.

Delegating – and in some cases negotiating – with others in the care recipient’s life is a crucial skill for many caregivers to learn, Gray says, especially for women. Between herself, her sisters, her partner and other members of the family, she has been able to find a balance that means she is not constantly sacrificing her own care for the well-being of others.

“I think that in order to survive, women have to learn not to take on things alone and to be able to share the responsibility, if possible,” she says.

Gray acknowledges that ending such a cycle is not easy, especially for those who don’t have a wide network of family or professional support to lean on.

The difficult first step may be booking a vacation for yourself, she offers, forcing a caregiver to make alternative arrangements or negotiations while the individual recovers.

Without a vacation from work — paid or unpaid — caregiving can be an unmanageable task that places an unfair burden on someone, Gray says.

“Unpaid work does not stop. You don’t get that paycheck at the end of the day or at the end of the two weeks before. … so you have to build in your own breaks,” she says.

“You have to build that into your life to do well, to continue to thrive and to survive.”