I never thought of myself as a caregiver until I interviewed for a position with The Ontario Caregiver Organization. It was during the interview process, while talking about an ex-partner’s struggle with an opioid drug addiction, that it dawned on me – I was a caregiver.
He wasn’t an elderly parent living with dementia, or a younger sibling diagnosed with leukemia, but he was a loved one suffering with mental health and addictions issues, and he was someone who I cared for. From the beginning of our four-year relationship, when he did his first detox, during the relapses, the overdoses, and right through to the end of the relationship when we amicably parted ways, I was there, providing emotional, financial, and sometimes physical support on a day-to-day basis. I was there, providing shelter and security, often prioritizing his immediate needs ahead of my own goals and dreams. I was there making sure he didn’t relapse, researching programs to help Ontarians diagnosed with hepatitis C, and helping him enroll in classes at the University of Toronto to keep up his morale. I was there, providing care. I was his caregiver.
The basic definition of a caregiver is: A person who provides direct care (for children, elderly people, or the chronically ill). As I’ve learned, it is so much more than that.
Across Ontario there are 3.3 million caregivers – ordinary people including children and youth, who are caring for family members, partners, friends and neighbours, who have physical and/or mental health needs. These caregivers deliver roughly three quarters of all patient care. They are the single most valuable resource to our health care system, our communities and society at large.
Caregivers are the people who help find housing or attend court dates for their adult children with mental health challenges. They are the nephews who get groceries for their aunt who lives with a disability. They are the single parents who drive their child to weekly physiotherapy appointments. They are the members of our community who shovel the driveway for their elderly neighbors.
In addition to caring for their loved ones, many caregivers will also experience mental health crises or “burnout” as it is often called, due to the demands that being a caregiver has on their own mental health. Prioritizing is often difficult for caregivers but it is important for them to have their own support systems in place; whether that be weekly therapy sessions, yoga classes, social time with friends, or just simply being able to ask for help. There is no shame in taking time off to care for oneself as well.
It wasn’t until I ended my relationship, and discovered meditation, that I realized how heavy the burden of caregiving had been on my own life. Caring for a loved one with mental health and addictions issues had taken a toll on my own mental and physical health in ways I hadn’t even imagined. Sometimes I think if I had kept going in my role as a caregiver, I wouldn’t have had much of anything left to give – not to him, not to my career commitments, and certainly not to myself.
Reflecting upon the subject of this blog, it occurred to me that virtually everyone in Ontario knows a caregiver. Caregivers come from all types of communities and socio-economic backgrounds. They could be your hairdresser, the cashier at your local grocery store, your boss, your neighbor, or even yourself.
To help identify if you or your loved one is a caregiver, please check out our caregiver quiz. For assistance and information about programs and services geared towards supporting caregivers, please check out our Helpline.