Op-Ed: Let’s Talk About How We Can Ease the Burden of Caregivers

I remember driving down the road one day with my brother, Dillon, in the back seat. It was a sunny day, and we had the windows wide-open, the wind rushing through the car.

Dillon, as many people know, has autism. Some might question why a teenage boy of 19 would be driving down the road with his hands flapping out the window. But for me, this was pretty normal. Dillon loved the rush of air passing through his fingers.

As we motored down the road, I glanced into the mirror and noticed something strange: The cars behind me were swerving erratically. Suddenly, I heard a mischievous giggle from the back seat. I turned around and watched as Dillon grabbed a tennis ball from an open bag and lobbed it out the window.

A stream of tennis balls were bouncing down the road like miniature grenades – leaving chaos in their wake. Next, I watched in horror as the tennis racket flew out the window.

It is estimated that caregivers save the Canadian health care system as much as $31 billion annually.

I think back about this incident and laugh. This was life was Dillon. Every day with a sibling with special needs is a whirlwind. And as anyone who is a caregiver knows, it’s a full-time job.

Caregivers are all around us. There’s more than eight million of them. And whether they’re looking after a child with a disability, someone with a chronic illness, or a senior with a degenerative disease such as dementia, the experience of caregivers is universal.

Their quiet strength is essential to the success of our health care system. In fact, it is estimated that caregivers save the Canadian health care system as much as $31 billion annually.

The burdens faced by caregivers are vast – whether physical, emotional or financial. And we need to have a conversation about how we can best support them.

That’s why I introduced my first Private Member’s Bill, the Caregiver Recognition Act, in the Ontario legislature. The Act would establish the first Tuesday in April each year as Caregiver Recognition Day. It would also establish a set of principles on the important role of caregivers that should be taken into consideration in the development of any new government policy.

There are eight specific principles outlined in the Act. While these principles are wide-ranging, they broadly fall into three categories. First, they recognize the valuable social and economic contribution that caregivers make to society. Second, they reinforce the need to provide supports that allow caregivers to maintain their own health and well-being. Last, they encourage the government to work to ensure that caregivers have opportunities to continue to lead fulfilling lives while caring for their loved one.

By recognizing caregivers’ contributions, burdens and sacrifices, we as policymakers can better plot out what supports are needed.

Our next step following this bill will be to look at policies that can help translate these principles into reality. With the number of seniors set to double in the next decade and the rates of developmental disabilities such as autism rising, we as a society and as a government need to consider how best to leverage our greater resource: the unsung heroes that are caregivers.

So let’s kick-start a conversation on what those policies should look like. Because, as former First Lady Rosalynn Carter once said, “There are only four types of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who need caregivers.”

This was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen