Caregiving expert calls for more resources

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by JIM BROWN, Journal Pioneer

Janice Keefe, a former Kinkora resident who grew up in a household of seven children, knows the value of family in providing a security net for aging parents with chronic illnesses.
Keefe, who has gone on to become one of the country's foremost experts on aging and caregiving and who is an associate professor at Mount St. Vincent University, in Halifax, says Canada is facing a looming health care crunch.

Canada is greying at a dramatic rate and these days it's not unheard of for seniors to live on to their 80s or 90s, and for caregivers to be providing care, at a tremendous cost to their health and social well-being, into their 60s, said Keefe.

She was a guest speaker at the East Prince Health Region's annual meeting Tuesday evening at the Linkletter Inn.

The issue is rapidly reaching a flashpoint as the country's baby boomers, the most indulged generation ever, are starting to feel the pinch of looking after elderly parents, she said.

They are also beginning to ask who will care for them, said Keefe. But baby boomers are providing an important "wake-up" call to politicians and to society.

Their fierce lobbying efforts will likely hasten major reforms in how caregivers are perceived in society and in the resources they are given to meet the demands of providing round the clock homecare for family members.

Governments ignore the value of homecare provided by community volunteers, family members, neighbours and friends at their peril, she warned, since up to 90 per cent of caregiving support is provided outside the health care system at no cost to taxpayers.

Caregivers needs are diverse, ranging from respite services - time away from their duties - to leave from work, to compensation to pay baby-sitters and other costs associated with offering care, to counselling to ease mounting stressloads, said Keefe.

Governments don't have the luxury of time, she warned. By 2001, 13.4 per cent of the Island's population was 65 or older, according to Statistics Canada.

To be fair, many of those 65-year-olds are in robust health and may even be looking after aging parents themselves.

But the grim truth remains that infirmity and ill health are largely associated with age, said Keefe.

Several island initiatives were praised, including the move towards a comprehensive integration of health care services, in order to offer "a one-stop shopping" point of access to a range of medical and health care resources.

"P.E.I. is a leader in integration of acute care, continuing care and home care," said Keefe.

But more is needed, including greater respite services.

"They (caregivers) need a break, they need a rest."

Keefe said she is eagerly awaiting the release of Ray Romanow's report on health care in Canada, Thursday. She's optimistic the report will offer greater help for caregivers.

"It has an entire chapter on home care," she said.

Keefe listed examples of provinces that tried to control budgets by slashing home care support, only to see health care costs rise dramatically.

Those mistakes are being corrected, and now many family members are being trained by health care professionals to provide a wide range of complex care.

But there are still obstacles in the system that discourage a needed shift to support for home care, stressed Keefe.

In many cases, it's much easier for stressed out siblings and children to leave a family member in hospital, where services can be provided at greatly reduced costs.

Once patients are discharged, medical bills for their care will begin to mount, said Keefe.

And if patients are transferred to long-term care facilities, they must often sell off their assets to pay for their care.






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