Families need more help to care for ill and elderly

[attach]2719[/attach]Prior to becoming the Member of Parliament for Don Valley West, I was a United Church minister for over 24 years.

During that time, I encountered literally hundreds of families facing the huge challenge of caring for elderly and sick loved ones.
Sometimes these were illnesses at the very end of life. Other times they were crisis situations where families’ lives were turned upside down by a critical illness, injury or other health concern. The personal and financial burdens placed on families, especially women, were constantly apparent to me.

Today, 2.7 million Canadians provide care for seniors. By 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday, it is estimated that the number of seniors with chronic conditions requiring home care services will increase by one-third. We are an aging population – and we are living longer.

Family caregivers are responsible for 80 percent of Canada’s homecare services, providing an estimated $9 billion in unpaid homecare. The reality is that in Canada, we often want to take care of our parents at home.

Providing family care leads to many out-of-pocket expenses, and often, lost income from work absence. We all know families facing this situation if we ourselves are not in it right now – or may be not many years from now. The statistics are staggering: over 40 percent of family caregivers use personal savings to survive while caring for a loved one; one-quarter of family caregivers miss one or more months of work to provide care; 65 percent of family caregivers have household incomes under $45,000; and three-quarters of family caregivers are women, who are more likely to have lower wages, fewer savings and additional responsibilities for child care.

Canada needs a balanced and fiscally responsible approach to this social challenge. Rather than corporate tax breaks, untendered military spending and mega-jails, Canada needs to invest in people who care for people.

On the table is a proposal from Michael Ignatieff, the Leader of the Official Opposition, to change the Employment Insurance benefits for individuals who care for family members and also provide them a tax credit.

The EI system provides compassionate care benefits but a family caregiver can only receive EI benefits for six weeks, and only if there is a significant risk of death within 26 weeks. That is simply inadequate. We propose a six-month period of benefits, similar to the current parental leave benefit. The program will be flexible, allowing the six months to be claimed in blocks of time with family members being allowed to share the six months to provide care. This would help an estimated 30,000 family caregivers at a cost of $250 million.

Some people don’t qualify for EI – self-employed workers, retirees or others not in the work force. What is also needed is a Family Care Tax benefit to help low- and middle-income families similar to the Child Tax Benefit. Ignatieff proposes a tax credit of up to $1,350 per year available to all family caregivers with family incomes under $106,000. Families with sick children who meet the criteria would also qualify. This would help an estimated 600,000 family caregivers each year at an annual cost of $750 million.

Canada needs to invest in the health of Canadian families. This could be done for significantly less than hosting one international summit. That’s value for money.