U of A study looks at pandemic's financial impact on family providers of long-term care

Dr. Jasneet Parmar's study is a followup to a survey conducted in July 2020 that found increased burn out, anxiety and loneliness among caregivers.

'We've had an exponential increase in their anxiety,' researcher says

David Howatt says he 'kind of fell into' the role of caregiver for his wife, Anne Lambert. (Submitted by David Howatt)

David Howatt has been caring for his wife, Anne Lambert, after she got rear-ended by a truck in 1998, leaving her with brain trauma and later with dementia.

"I kind of fell into the role of caregiver," Howatt said. 

At first it was making sure she didn't wander away or step in front of cars, but as her condition worsened, he began to bathe, clothe and feed his wife.

"It was kind of like taking someone shopping. It was like taking a teenager and then it was like taking a 12-year-old, and then it was like taking a nine-year-old and then a seven-year-old," he said.

Family caregivers are people who take on an unpaid caring role and provide emotional, physical or practical support in response to physical or mental illnesses, disabilities or age-related needs. A 2012 Statistics Canada survey found one in four people in Alberta are family caregivers.

Dr. Jasneet Parmar, an associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Alberta, is conducting a study into how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected caregivers in the province.

The study is a followup to a previous survey conducted by Parmar and her team in July 2020. 

"Thirty per cent of the family caregivers who responded to the survey spoke about how the pandemic had negatively impacted their finances," Parmar told CBC's Edmonton AM on Tuesday. 

"So we are asking a lot more questions about their financial health this time around."

Parmar said the previous survey found that the pandemic had not been kind to family caregivers. 

"We already knew prior to the pandemic that the caregiver stress and burnout, anxiety and loneliness was increasing."

She said the pandemic has taken a toll. "We've had an exponential increase in their anxiety and their loneliness, the duration of their physical and mental health," she said. 

According to Statistics Canada, each year caregivers in Alberta provide close to 400 million hours of care, 10 times the amount of paid care that's provided. It saves the province around $6 billion in health-care costs each year.

David Howatt with his wife, Anne Lambert, at the continuing care home in 2019. (Submitted by David Howatt)

In 2018, Howatt admitted his wife into a continuing care home.

Although he said he was financially prepared support his wife throughout her condition and has managed well, he understands how for most people it can become quite difficult. 

He said the continuing care home has a monthly rate. "But there are things like you want laundry done, it's $50 a month and any personal use things, shampoos and body wash and whatever have to be done."

Not everything is covered by Alberta Health or Blue Cross, "so that could be extra expense," he said.

Parmar said she hopes the results of the new study can inform government and Alberta Health Services and organizations that deal with caregivers.

"We would like to take this information to them," she said. "They have a wide-range of caregiver-focused organizations that need to talk about how they can strengthen their programs … so this information should be helpful to them."