Senate proposes leave benefits for palliative care

Care for aging loved ones likely to eclipse child care as the pressing issue.

Canadian businesses can expect a dramatic spike in the numbers of employees who need time to provide care and support for their elderly baby boomer parents. And an aging population invariably means more people caring for dying loved ones.

In response, Canadian employees should be given palliative care leave benefits, akin to parental leave, to care for loved ones in need of full-time care as they approach death, according to recommendations from a senate subcommittee.

The government may have to legislate income security and job protection for employees who are attempting to balance work while trying to provide care for dying loved ones because employers are not doing enough to help employees cope with this difficult task, said Senator Sharon Carstairs, chair of the senate subcommittee to update “Of Life and Death,” a 1995 report that made recommendations regarding palliative care.

According to Carstairs, employees should receive the standard EI benefit of 55 per cent of their income for three months. It is usually in the last three months that people who are dying are most in need of care, she said.

Martin Zelder, director of health policy research with the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, agreed that more employees will need assistance to care for dying loved ones, but employers will be able to respond to employee needs than the government. “It could potentially be quite disruptive,” he said of the proposed palliative care leave. Better to leave it up to the employer to work something out with the employee on a case-by-case basis. Certainly some employers may be reluctant to do that without prodding but those that don’t will suffer in the marketplace.

“Employers will find it harder and harder to retain good employees if they’re not responsive to these kinds of legitimate needs,” he said.

Caring for aging loved ones is already a very serious issue but by virtue of the fact that we live in an aging society, it will become a much more serious issue in the next five to 25 years, said Robert Glossop, executive director of programs at the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family, an organization that monitors family trends including work-life balance.

The palliative care recommendations would be applicable to anyone coping with a dying loved one, regardless of age. But in most instances, palliative care involves adult children caring for dying parents, said Janet Dunbrack, executive director of the Canadian Palliative Care Association (CPCA). About 220,000 people die every year, roughly 75 per cent of those people are 65 or older, she added.

And when the aging population is combined with a general trend away from institutional care and medical advances that are extending life expectancies, inevitably palliative care will also become a greater concern.

“It is likely to dwarf the child-care crisis,” said Glossop.

CPCA research indicates roughly 2.1 million Canadians provide care to ill family members, two-thirds of whom are members of the workforce. The same study also stated Canada lags behind other G7 countries in helping workers provide care to dying loved ones.

Aside from compelling compassionate reasons for assisting employees, there is the simple business case to be made, said Glossop.

If there is no systematic, institutional response, productivity will suffer, he said. Helping employees cope with elder and palliative care reduces stress and absenteeism and improves performance and customer satisfaction.

Many employees still have to lie when they need to take time off for the most important thing in their life, their family, and they shouldn’t have to do that, he said.

HR professionals are still struggling to impart that business case to corporate decision-makers and so the government should act to help Canadians workers, say proponents of legislation. Those who do convince corporate decision-makers to offer employees better leave policies to care for the elderly and the dying will also find they become more attractive employers.

The first wave of baby boomers is about 52 years’ old and they go on for about 20 years, he said.

Though we will likely start to see an increasing elder-care responsibility in as little as five years, the real crunch will come in 10 years or so when the boomers start to hit 65.

In its report, the subcommittee urged the federal government to study how employees who leave their job to “care full time for a dying relative could be given income assistance, or income and job security, through changes to existing federal employment and taxation programs.

Programs like those currently available for parental support could provide a starting point. The necessary changes to accomplish this objective must be undertaken at once.”

Like Glossop, Nora Spinks of Toronto-based Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, said Canadian businesses are not doing enough to help workers care for dying loved ones.

Only about 10 per cent of Canadian businesses have programs specifically designed to support workers providing elder care. She commends the recommendations of the subcommittee, but points out the difficulty in determining when the leave should be taken.

Unlike maternity leave, it is usually very difficult to predict when someone is going to die.

Aside from the formal leave suggested in the senate report, Spinks said businesses should do more on their own to help employees.

Self-funded sabbaticals, for instance, enable employees to save a small portion of each cheque. The employer guarantees the job when the time comes for extended leave and the employee draws on the fund built up beforehand to receive income.

It should be fairly easy to help employees and it does not have to be overly expensive, said Glossop. Simply providing employees with more flexibility and leave days specifically for caring for loved ones would go a long way to improving the situation, but few firms are doing that.

The committee heard hundreds of stories of workers who struggled to provide care to a dying loved one with insufficient support from their employers, said Carstairs.

Some critics may complain that families used to take care of their families themselves, but in those days, typically only one spouse worked, almost always the man and they were paid what was called a family wage so that his wife could stay home to provide care for family members, said Glossop.

That is no longer possible since the two-income family has become the norm, cutting into time available for caregiving responsibilities.

At press time, the report was still before the Senate where it is being very well received, said Carstairs.

She hopes the proposals will make it to the floor of the House in the fall session and is optimistic the recommendations will be adopted. A number of MPs from all political parties have expressed support and the health ministry is also said to be impressed, she said.

Carstairs also said, employers should not be overly concerned about staffing headaches new leave guarantees may present since it would be considerably less then the numbers who take parental leave. What’s more, any costs incurred from losing the employee would be offset by reduced stress levels and all of the well-documented benefits that come along with that, said Carstairs.

It is still unclear how many people who would take advantage of the leave, a matter requiring further study before the policy could be introduced.

“We would have to find how many people would need to use it,” she said. “We can’t go into this blindly.” Care for aging loved ones likely to eclipse child care as the pressing issue

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