My Take: Childcare support welcome, but what about elder care?

I’m told I’m a member of the so-called sandwich generation of those in their 30s and 40s with the dual responsibilities of bringing up their own children and caring for their aging parents. In reality, I won’t be facing these pressures any time soon as I’m 35 and childless with parents in their 60s who are very active and independent. But I certainly have friends who are dealing with this issue.

Many of them have high-level, inflexible, jobs, so the act of juggling the care of both dependent children and dependent parents becomes even more daunting. And Canadian employers are just not stepping up to help alleviate the burdens.

Read: How to bridge the parental leave divide

“Elder care is where childcare was 25 years ago, where you had to lie and say you were sick in order to facilitate your kids being sick,” says Pat Irwin, president of consulting service ElderCareCanada.

“The combination of more women in the workplace, the growing awareness of physician-assisted death, palliative care, the right of people to take family leave and have a lot more attention paid to work-life balance, all have added up to employers having to step up to support elder care.”

When it comes to childcare, I regularly hear from my friends about the crippling expense involved, but at least most employers recognize the need to offer their working parents some form of flexibility. That’s not the case with elder care.

In a previous role, I wrote for Employee Benefits magazine in Britain, a country that’s significantly ahead of Canada in a number of areas related to human resources, benefits and pensions. Back in 2014, I was writing on the subject of elder care quite regularly as the demand for it by employees was on the rise.

Read: Caregivers need employer support

An in-house report published by the magazine in 2014 found that the inclusion of emergency elder care within flexible benefits plans was set to grow a stunning 142%.

One point raised at the time was the idea that employers needed to be more proactive in allowing employees the time and resources to care of aging relatives rather than offering to help in the case of an emergency.

But despite the research findings, relatively few employers in Britain were offering any provision around elder care at that time. The conversation there has since shifted significantly.

In Canada, we have a way to go on both fronts, but at least the conversation is underway.

One employer leading the charge on both sides of the Atlantic is KPMG, which helps employees balance work and their personal lives through a variety of flexible working options. In Canada, the company’s Personal Care program provides employees with up to 50 hours of paid time off annually to help with a range of personal matters, including family emergencies and bereavement.

Read: Saskatchewan Party would offer more palliative care leave if re-elected

On the government front, our country’s current compassionate leave provision is emergency-based, and it’s also quite targeted as it applies only to employees who require time off to tend to a “gravely ill” family member. An employee must obtain a medical certificate, stating that the family member has a serious medical condition and, as a result, there is a significant risk of death within 26 weeks.

“This is not an exact science,” says Irwin. “I’ve had people graduate from palliative care. I’ve had people get a diagnosis of 16 more months and die the next week. You just don’t know.”

According to the Canada Labour Code, there’s also no provision for paid leave of absence, although the government says some employees may be able to access cash benefits under the Employment Insurance Act.

The basic benefit rate is 55% of average insurable earnings, up to a yearly maximum insurable amount, which is $50,800 in 2016. That means an employee can receive a maximum payment of $537 per week in 2016.

In its first federal budget earlier this week, the Liberals committed to providing more flexibility in parental leave benefits and to making compassionate care benefits easier to access and more inclusive for those who provide care for seriously ill family members. There were no additional details on what that would look like.

Read: Budget 2016: Government commits to improving compassionate care leave and parental leave benefits

Provincially, some changes took effect in January of this year. In Nova Scotia, 28 weeks of compassionate care leave are now available to eligible employees, a significant increase from the eight weeks that had previously been available.

In Prince Edward Island, the leave of absence change applies only to those with children. Employees are now eligible for up to 37 weeks of unpaid leave is their child is critically ill, up to 52 weeks for the disappearance of a child and 104 weeks for the death of a child.

If the Saskatchewan Party wins that province’s upcoming election, it has promised to extend palliative care leave to 26 weeks for people caring for family members near the end of their lives.

These changes are striking compared to the eight weeks of unpaid leave available in Ontario to care for or support a sick family member, as introduced in Bill 30, the Family Caregiver Leave Act.

Read: Legislative round-up: key dates for group benefits plans

But the provisions also raise another issue. Caring for an aging relative doesn’t necessarily mean that relative is close to death. Consider, for instance, the growing prevalence of chronic diseases among seniors, such as dementia, that would still require someone to assist but doesn’t fit into the narrow definition of a terminal or grave disease.

I’m not intending to downplay the seriousness of these types of leaves of absence. But strict definitions and fragmented legislation don’t advance the national conversation. I also feel it’s important to continue pushing the conversation beyond working parents to include everyone who has a caring responsibility.

That’s where I believe employers have a duty of care to support their employees. Some employees will have childcare and elder care responsibilities. With an aging population, how can we continue to differentiate between the two? And imagine the stress on the employee who’s taking both of these responsibilities on at the same time.

Read: Compassionate care benefits boost staff engagement

Jennifer Paterson is managing editor at Benefits Canada.