Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto is launching a program to help Canadians torn between work demands and caring for a loved one with dementia.
The hospital has been awarded a five-year, $2.84-million grant from the federal government to develop the program devoted to supporting working caregivers.
“As our population is aging, there’s more and more people in the community with dementia and for every person with dementia, there is a caregiver looking after that person,” said Virginia Wesson, geriatric psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital and implementation lead for the Reitman Centre Working CARERS Program.
“Increasingly, those caregivers are doing dual duty — they’re caring for a parent but at the same time trying to hold down a job and it’s very difficult to juggle those things.”
There are about 500,000 Canadians suffering from dementia and this number is expected to nearly double over the next 25 years, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.
Caregivers face a number of challenges. They may struggle with anxiety, grief, guilt and anger, said Estelle Morrison, vice-president of clinical and wellness services at Ceridian in Markham, Ont., which will be delivering the program.
And depression among caregivers is up to 40 per cent higher than the general population, according to Mount Sinai.
Caregivers also tend to have more physical symptoms and may experience an increase in doctor’s visits, use of prescription medication and alcohol use, said Morrison. These challenges can have significant implications for their work.
“Maybe you have to take more time away from your job and that may have consequences. Maybe you miss a promotion… or you’re having to use your holiday time to care for your parent and that means you don’t get the break you need,” said Wesson. “Or, if you’re able to get there every single day, maybe your mom is calling all the time and it’s hard to focus on your work.”
The program aims to assist caregivers in reducing the risk for emotional or physical issues associated with caregiving. It also helps caregivers learn how to caregive in a more efficient, positive manner, she said.
This fall, the program will be launched in partnership with BMO Financial Group — which already uses Ceridian for its employee assistance program (EAP) — for a five-year pilot.
“Our Lifeworks program already has everything from child-care options to information and resources for elder care, so it’s a really nice fit,” said Natalie Scott, managing director of benefits and recognition at BMO Financial Group in Toronto. “Given what we know about the demographic challenges that we’re going to see over the next 10 years or so, it’s something we see as being both a need and a benefit for our employees.”
The program will be available to all 15,000 employees at BMO locations in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The company has 47,000 employees across the country.
Employees who are caring for someone with dementia will first have to call Ceridian’s EAP line and undergo an intake assessment.
From there, employees will be slotted into three different groups:
• High intensity — facing significant challenges and whose well-being is at high risk.
• Medium intensity — experiencing some coping challenges and whose well-being is at moderate risk.
• Low intensity — coping pretty well but who could benefit from education or direction, particularly as a preventative measure.
The length of the program varies based on the level of intensity. High intensity will last eight weeks, medium will last six and low intensity two weeks. One two-hour session will take place each week.
The timing of the sessions has yet to be ironed out but they may happen at lunch or at the beginning or end of the workday, said Scott.
The first two training sessions involve all participants, regardless of their functioning or concerns, and are educational in nature, said Morrison.
“They discuss things like, ‘What may I be at risk for as a caregiver?’ ‘How can I engage in better self-care, community resources, understanding dementia?’ So all from an educational perspective,” she said.
Participants then enter the treatment component where they are divided into their intensity levels and provided support based on their needs.
“Those are really about dealing with your situation, your struggles, your loved one — and they’re actually treatment groups, so counselling groups aimed at providing you with better support for your loved one and how to take care of yourself through this,” said Morrison.
The program includes hands-on, simulation-based caregiver training where professional actors have been trained to act as people with dementia. Participants talk about a specific situation they are facing, the actors act out the scenario and counsellors assist the participants in how to handle the challenge.
“That’s unique to what we do and it’s very powerful in getting people to communicate in different ways or understand or interact with a person with dementia in ways that work better for both sides,” said Wesson.
The training is all group-based because it provides caregivers with much-needed mutual support and understanding from other people who “get it,” she said.
“That’s very helpful for people — suddenly, they’re not alone and they feel like, ‘Oh, when I get frustrated, other people get frustrated. I’m not a bad person, it’s just part of the process,’” said Wesson. “There’s a lot of relief in knowing there’s other people (in similar situations), their responses are human and it’s OK to be overwhelmed or sad or anxious with what they’re facing.”
BMO is hoping the program will assist in retaining employees who are struggling to balance work and caregiving.
“Having to make some lifestyle choices, life changes to be able to accommodate the care of an aging relative, aging parent, we want them to get the support they need, so they can choose to stay and can continue to balance the multiple demands,” said Scott.
The financial institution is also hoping the program will resonate with its broader employee population.
“We hope what’s reinforced for them is they work for an organization that really cares for employees and listens and responds when there is a need.”
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