A balanced approach to caregiving often begins with communication and education.
To Kim Mason, assuming the role of caregiver felt natural—an inherent responsibility she felt in tune with and proud to take on.
As senior vice president and head of RBC Private Banking Canada, Mason’s children were on the cusp of self-sufficiency when her mother started showing signs of dementia. “You’re just starting to feel some liberation from the heavy-lifting years with your kids—of our four, one was going to university, one was starting high school,” says Mason. “But I had this weight of seeing my mom decline and it was moving quite rapidly.”
As her mother moved further into dementia and into professional care, Mason found herself caring as much for her father as for her mom. It’s been that way since 2015.
Today, Mason is a mom and an executive. She sits on three boards and is an essential caregiver for her mom and power of attorney (POA) for both her parents. Committed to extending the quality of his life, Mason hosts her dad for dinner every weekend and sends him home with meals to help get him through the week. On Sundays, she drives an hour to get an hour visit with her mom at the long-term care facility. “Pursuing an executive role for all of my career, there’s been lots of time spent away on airplanes and lots of travel and evening events which come with a big job, but you have to make time to be a caregiver, even when you don’t see it coming,” she says. “It’s not something you can turn your back on—it’s a responsibility that you love, but it’s still a responsibility.”
Mason isn’t unique; rather, what she’s doing is consistent with a wider cultural sense—the notion that the circle of life demands we care for our aging parents in the way they cared for us growing up. It’s both a natural and ubiquitous sentiment; but caregiving stretches beyond that—people of all ages fill this role, and it can take a toll.
According to Statistics Canada , approximately one in four Canadians age 15 and older cares for a family member or friend with a long-term health condition, a physical or mental disability or age-related challenges. Caregivers who provide a minimum of 20 hours of care a week (54 percent) are more likely to describe their responsibilities as stressful. Caregiver burnout is often fuelled by the unrealistic expectations and demands that caregivers place upon themselves. The cost to the caregiver can be physical, emotional and financial—it can impact their career or relationship with their partner, children or extended family. It can lead to a deterioration of mental well-being.
“There’s a very big cost,” says Audrey Miller, a registered social worker, certified life care planner, and founder and managing director of Elder Caring Inc , a national care management company that has partnered with RBC Wealth Management. “If the caregiver does not look after themselves, then it’s two folks who will need care.”
Another report from Statistics Canada found nearly half of caregivers (45 percent) received help from a spouse or partner who modified their life or work arrangements. “Caregiver burnout is not just impacting the person doing the looking after,” says Miller. “It can impact those supporting the person who’s providing that care as well.”
For caregivers, preventing burnout is often a matter of support. That support can take various forms. “Part of my job is to try to get you back to the role of son or daughter, so you don’t necessarily have to be the primary caregiver,” says Miller. She often finds scenarios where an adult child supporting an aging parent is cleaning their parent’s house or providing an intimate level of care that could be handled by someone else. “Would your mother want you bathing her?”
A balanced approach to caregiving often begins with communication and education, explains Miller. “Conversations are always the starting point … getting everybody around the table in some level of discussion and agreement.”
That can be family members but can also include outside support such as financial advisors or estate planners. Leanne Kaufman, president and CEO of RBC Royal Trust, says this is where family members can draw the lines between emotional, physical and financial support. They can identify needs—will the person being cared for require a spot in a long-term care facility or some sort of day-to-day programming? Will they be aging at home? Which family member will play which role? When will outside help be needed?
“For those who can afford it, I think they have to get a lot more comfortable with outsourcing—engaging help, whether that’s literally caregiving help from professional personal support workers or nurses, or people to simply help with cleaning and food preparation,” says Kaufman. “You still have to manage that process and manage the individual, but I think there’s a lot more that can be outsourced than people are taking advantage of.”
From a financial perspective, it could mean leaning on their financial institution to help manage the bills and assets, so the caregiver can focus on the more physical or emotional elements of care.
Kaufman also advocates for bringing an independent voice to the table to help manage family dynamics, especially in cases where one family member is feeling like the others aren’t doing their fair share. “[Becoming a caregiver] is a new dynamic in that relationship, and no matter how strong the relationship was prior, there could be resentment.”
An independent party can inject neutrality into a conversation surrounding the progression of a disease, anticipated care needs and what assuming the role of primary caregiver will look like. Resentment can put you in a bad place, says Miller. “[Our organization] tries to get involved before that point or before there’s a major health crisis.”
Beyond professionals and independent advisors, Miller points to community resources as a vital part of preventing caregiver burnout. For some, the public sector may be able to provide personal support workers. There are also support groups for caregivers looking after someone with a specific illness such as heart issues or dementia.
Respite and support services need to be built into the carer’s schedule, says Miller. “There are adult day programs in which, for $35 to $50 a day, [the person being cared for] can be picked up, taken to a program, have a hot meal and be driven home in the afternoon.”
When Mason reflects on her role as a caregiver, she says she knows it sometimes comes at a cost to pursuing interests or even just carving out some free time for herself. “I could probably do a better job of carving out personal time for myself,” she says. “But I’m honestly so grateful I have all this time with my dad and I’m able to bring joy to his life.”
Addressing how difficult it can be to ask for help as a caregiver, Mason says her dad was experiencing “extreme caregiver burnout” before her mom went into long-term care. “There was a point along the way when I thought I was at risk of losing both parents,” she adds. “I think many caregivers struggle to ask for help—it brings guilt and its own sense of helplessness.”
The resources are out there, says Miller, it’s a matter of the caregiver recognizing they likely need support. “If you can’t think about those things for yourself,” she says, “talk to a professional who can help you see what some of the challenges are and help look for support.”
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