The costs of caregiving

Six billion dollars. It’s a lot of zeroes, and no, it’s not the latest government bailout. That’s how much it would cost to replace the unpaid hours Canadian caregivers provide for their loved ones.

You would think that such a large number would be difficult to overlook. Caregivers contribute an enormous amount of time and money to their role, but many people — including employers and government policy makers — fail to understand the hidden costs and financial demands. Currently, caregivers bear the brunt of added costs as well as providing care and services their loved ones can’t otherwise afford or access.

So what’s going on, and what can be done?

Portrait of caregivers

Not surprisingly, the majority of caregivers looking after Canada’s aging population are Zoomers. According to a 2007 Statistics Canada survey, there are roughly 2.7 million Canadians over the age of 45 providing some form of unpaid care for seniors — that’s one fifth of all Zoomers. Forty per cent of caregivers are between the ages of 45 and 54, nearly one third are aged 54 to 64, and roughly a quarter are seniors themselves (age 65 and over). They juggle numerous responsibilities like marriages, children and full time jobs. Nearly 6 out of 10 caregivers are women.

The majority of caregivers are looking after their parents or their spouses’ parents, but caregivers also support friends, neighbours and other relatives too. Nearly 80 per cent of those receiving care still live in their own homes, while the remainder are in a care facility. In addition, many caregivers provide support to more than one adult.

The majority of caregivers are happy to take on the role, according information from the University of Alberta’s Department of Human Ecology. Most find it rewarding to be able to give back to someone who has given so much to them, and they find caregiving strengthens their relationships.

Financial impact

That $6 billion dollars we mentioned before? That’s just labour. The actual figure could be much higher when you factor in out-of-pocket expenses like medications, medical supplies and transportation. Then there are all those gadgets and home improvements that make it possible for seniors to age-in-place, or to move in with their adult children. Nursing care and respite care are costs many caregivers face, especially if their loved one has a mental illness or physical disability.

On an individual basis, caregiving can cost Canadians thousands of dollars each year. A recent poll conducted by Investors Group found that 40 per cent of caregivers spent an average of nearly $500 per month, or $6000 per year.

These additional expenses aren’t the only hit to the budget. Many caregivers find their jobs affected as well. At a time when they’re earning top wages, many are cutting back their hours, avoiding overtime, turning down promotions and even quitting their jobs. They’re not just losing income — they’re often losing benefits and eating into their future pension income as well.

Also worrisome is the trend that more women than men are making sacrifices in the workplace. They may have already taken time off to have children, and dollar-per-dollar they earn significantly less than men during their lifetimes. They also live longer, and are more likely to experience poverty in old age. In other words, making sacrifices now means they may not have the financial resources they need in retirement.

Men are also feeling the pinch. While they’re less likely to cut back their hours, research shows they earn lower wages than men who aren’t caregivers. Employers are also losing out as highly-skilled workers of both sexes cut back on their duties or leave the workforce altogether.

To add insult to proverbial injury, caregivers aren’t offered the same benefits and support as those who care for children, according to CARP, Canada’s Association for Older Canadians. For instance, new parents can take a year of parental leave, but caregivers have no such protection or benefits if they need to take an extended leave to care for a critically-ill loved one. Many employer benefit programs also allow flexible hours and help with child care costs, but offer nothing to caregivers who require care for elderly parents at home or assistance.

Caregivers also got the shaft in the last federal budget, which included increases to the National Child Benefit Supplement and the Canada Child Tax Benefit but nothing for caregivers.

Hidden impacts

Some costs can’t be measured in dollars. Caregivers make a lot of sacrifices that others don’t recognize or understand. According to the University of Alberta, some of these “hidden costs” include:

Physical health — Many caregivers report that their role is affecting their health. Some report a decline in general health, while others report trouble sleeping and physical strain. Forty per cent report feeling additional stress because of their caregiving responsibilities. Many caregivers have their own health issues to deal with too.

Emotional impact — Caregiving can be mentally exhausting as well. Many caregivers experience a gamut of emotions from anger to depression. They feel burdened, but at the same time nearly 60 per cent felt they should be doing more. (A survey conducted by CARP placed this number much higher at 90 per cent.)

Social consequences — They’re giving up much-needed leisure time and holidays, as well as social time with family and friends. Their sacrifices, health and feelings can negatively impact close relationships with those around them, causing even more tension.

What’s the bottom line?

Why are the costs important? Imagine what it would cost if employers and the government had to cover the labour, services and additional costs that caregivers provide. As the population ages, the number of people needing care will increase, as will the number of caregivers — and the financial, physical and emotional burden they carry. Researchers and advocates alike are warning that we need to start paying attention, because the policies and supports we put in place now will have a ripple effect across future generations.

After all, Zoomers may be the first official “sandwich generation” — but they won’t be the last.


For more information about caregivers, visit the Department of Human Ecology’s Hidden Costs/Invisible Contributions website, and download CARP’s National Caregiver Strategy (pdf).

Additional sources:,, Statistics Canada, The Zoomer Report

Photo © Vicki Reid

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