Caring for care providers: Why we should be checking in with the caregivers in our lives

The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation suggests celebrating National Kindness Day (Nov. 13) in a number of ways: treating a stranger to a cup of coffee, complimenting a colleague or friend, allowing a fellow commuter to merge into traffic with a smile and wave.

For the occasion, a family caregiver in East Toronto decided to take a different route. Martin phoned several of his fellow caregivers throughout the day, checking in on their physical and mental well-being and taking the time to recognize the important work they do.

“Healthy connection is critical right now,” says Martin. “We can’t meet in person, but we can connect by phone, voice-to-voice. It’s more personal than receiving a text or email.”

Martin believes National Kindness Day (and every day) is about intentionally connecting with someone, asking questions that go beyond the superficial and then listening “like you mean it.”

“Everyone has a story to tell, but there isn’t always a willing set of ears to receive the details,” explains Martin.

Martin is one of more than 3.3 million caregivers in Ontario and one of thousands in East Toronto. Typically unpaid, they’re the people who provide physical and emotional support to a family member, partner, friend or neighbour with healthcare needs.

They assist with everything from personal care and housekeeping to advocating for patients on a full- or part-time basis, making them both healthcare providers and case managers in many ways.

At ETHP, caregivers are among the 50-plus partners involved in our provision of quality care. They work together with community, primary care, home care, hospital and social service organizations in East Toronto, ensuring the integrated system of care we are co-designing across our community considers those who need it most.

“Caregivers form the backbone of our healthcare system,” says Barbara Cawley, vice president of client services at VHA Home HealthCare (VHA) and a member of ETHP who provides operational support for ETHP’s Patient and Family/Caregiver Advisory Committee (PFAC).

“Their hard work and support helps keep their family members and our clients at home, which is where many want to be,” Barbara adds. “Without them, we would have more unnecessary admissions to hospitals and long-term care, and the consequences to our healthcare system would be significant.”

As a member of ETHP, Martin has a seat at various working groups who meet regularly to co-design care for communities in East Toronto. Martin is among a number of patients, family members and caregivers whose valuable perspectives help inform ETHP’s vision, guiding principles and goals.

“During the pandemic, it’s become even more important for the work of caregivers to be recognized,” adds Martin.

“Many of us do this full-time. We invest our own money in the tools and resources needed to provide care for our loved ones. And we’ve had to navigate COVID-19 without the same infection prevention and control expertise that helps guide nurses and physicians in other healthcare settings.”

This reality is perhaps why the Ontario Caregiver Organization (OCO) recently launched its #CallACaregiver campaign, which encourages people to reach out to and check in on the caregivers in their lives.

“The health of caregivers is tied directly to that of their our clients,” says Barbara. “It’s important we ensure they’re well and supported, and that they don’t feel isolated and alone, so they can continue to provide the care that is so vital to the health of our communities.”

“The message of National Kindness Day should apply not only on one designated date, but also on the other 364 days of the year,” adds Martin. “Let’s not treat the opportunity to express genuine kindness to others, including caregivers, as a time-limited, 24-hours-only opportunity, like how many mistakenly interpret Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.”

“Each new day presents 1,440 opportunities — one a minute — to express or show kindness, concern and compassion to others,” Martin continues.

And it’s easy to do, says Martin. “Simply pick up the phone, call a caregiver and ask how their day is going,” Martin says. “Get curious, ask questions, but above all, listen like you mean it.”