Family Day imagery neglects family caregivers’ care work; it needs to be valued

Fam­i­ly Day often evokes images of fam­i­lies enjoy­ing the out­doors togeth­er, play­ing board games or shar­ing a meal. But these images neglect the hid­den care that near­ly eight mil­lion care­givers across Cana­da pro­vide.

One in four Cana­di­ans aged 15+ pro­vide care to fam­i­ly, friends and neigh­bours with chron­ic health prob­lems, phys­i­cal or men­tal dis­abil­i­ties or func­tion­al lim­i­ta­tions.

The ongo­ing nature of this care work comes with both rewards and penal­ties. Car­ing for fam­i­ly and friends helps peo­ple give back, feel close and can give peo­ple a sense of com­pe­tence and pur­pose. At the same time, many care­givers have to deal with their own poor health, strained social con­nec­tions and out-of-pock­et expens­es.

These neg­a­tive out­comes threat­en the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of care­givers’ care work and affects their well-being. Fam­i­ly care­giv­ing is often ignored because it is unpaid, under­val­ued, hid­den in the pri­va­cy of homes and care facil­i­ties and done pri­mar­i­ly by women.

As a fam­i­ly econ­o­mist, and a fam­i­ly care­giv­ing researcher, (and fam­i­ly care­givers our­selves) we know this work isn’t free. Whether it’s per­son­al care, house­keep­ing, man­ag­ing appoint­ments and ser­vices, or even home-based kid­ney dial­y­sis, there’s noth­ing “free” about a fam­i­ly caregiver’s care work. And the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has made that even more obvi­ous.

Out­breaks in long-term care, work-from home man­dates, job loss­es and short­ages of for­mal home care ser­vices have com­pli­cat­ed and inten­si­fied fam­i­ly care­givers’ respon­si­bil­i­ties, iso­la­tion and stress.

The pan­dem­ic has also increased care­givers’ finan­cial bur­den and reduced their abil­i­ty to get much-need­ed out­side sup­port.

Despite this care cri­sis, fam­i­ly care­givers have car­ried on as best they can. Their col­lec­tive efforts — 5.7 bil­lion hours of fam­i­ly care work annu­al­ly — help sus­tain the pub­lic con­tin­u­ing care sys­tems that are increas­ing­ly depen­dent on them and reduce the bur­den on tax­pay­ers.

$97.1 bil­lion to replace fam­i­lies’ care work

Using data from Sta­tis­tics Canada’s most recent (2018) nation­al sur­vey on care­giv­ing and care receiv­ing , we found that fam­i­lies play a cen­tral role in meet­ing Cana­di­ans’ care needs.

Unpaid fam­i­ly care­givers in Cana­da spent an extra­or­di­nary 5.7 bil­lion hours annu­al­ly sup­port­ing oth­ers. It would take 2.8 mil­lion full-time paid care work­ers to do this work instead. Mul­ti­ply that by the nation­al medi­an hourly wage of $17 for home sup­port work­ers and you get a stag­ger­ing $97.1 bil­lion as the esti­mat­ed cost to replace Cana­di­an fam­i­lies’ care work.

To ful­ly under­stand the mag­ni­tude of care­givers’ con­tri­bu­tions to Cana­di­an soci­ety, con­sid­er that $97.1 bil­lion rep­re­sents 32.2 per cent of nation­al expen­di­tures on for­mal health care, and more than three times the nation­al expen­di­tures on con­tin­u­ing care ser­vices like home, com­mu­ni­ty and long-term care.

With­out the ongo­ing com­mit­ment and labour of fam­i­ly care­givers, the Cana­di­an con­tin­u­ing care sec­tor would col­lapse.

This $97.1 bil­lion val­ue also rep­re­sents 4.2 per cent of gross domes­tic prod­uct (GDP). That’s dou­ble the con­tri­bu­tions of indus­tries such as agri­cul­ture, util­i­ties and hos­pi­tal­i­ty, and 67 per cent of the con­tri­bu­tion of the health-care and social ser­vices sec­tors com­bined.

Pol­i­cy­mak­ers rely on GDP as a uni­ver­sal mea­sure of a country’s social and eco­nom­ic per­for­mance and stan­dard of liv­ing that guides their pol­i­cy deci­sions. Yet, because GDP omits the val­ue of unpaid care work, it is an incom­plete mea­sure lead­ing to flawed pub­lic pol­i­cy.

Key com­po­nent of the care econ­o­my

Many social injus­tices arise from the invis­i­bil­i­ty and deval­u­a­tion of fam­i­lies’ care work. Care­givers who are women, have low­er incomes, and are in their peak earn­ing years con­tribute more than their share.

Bring­ing fam­i­ly care into debates about the over­all econ­o­my and account­ing for care­givers’ con­tri­bu­tions is spark­ing con­ver­sa­tions about rec­og­niz­ing the care econ­o­my as a key com­po­nent and growth engine for Cana­di­an soci­ety. We define the care econ­o­my as paid and unpaid care work that sup­ports peo­ple who are care-depen­dent because of their chron­ic health con­di­tions or dis­abil­i­ties, or because of their young age.

Doc­u­ment­ing the enor­mous vol­ume and mon­e­tary val­ue of fam­i­ly mem­bers’ care work estab­lish­es it as an indis­pens­able social and eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty. Yet it is often left out of the pub­lic pol­i­cy agen­da.

It’s time to com­plete the pic­ture and rec­og­nize pub­lic expen­di­tures on sup­ports for fam­i­ly care­givers as social invest­ments in the well-being of indi­vid­u­als, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. It’s time for a Nation­al Care­giv­er Strat­e­gy and a Cana­da that rec­og­nizes, respects and sup­ports the inte­gral role of fam­i­ly care­givers in soci­ety.

Our study on the val­ue of unpaid fam­i­ly care work is a col­lab­o­ra­tive project of Janet Fast, Jacquie Eales, Norah Keat­ing and Choong Kim from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta and Karen Dun­can from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Man­i­to­ba.

Publié le 20 février 2022
Par Janet Fast, Professor and Co-Director, Research on Aging, Policies and Practice, University of Alberta & Jacquie Eales, Research Manager, Research on Aging Policies and Practice, University of Alberta