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Things to know when you become a caregiver

Your life changes when you become a caregiver. Here are some things you should know.

At some point, you may find yourself in the role of caregiver to your spouse or elderly parents. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Power of Attorney

To make decisions for your spouse or parents, you need to have the written legal authority to do so in a Power of Attorney (POA). Your loved one assigns you as a substitute decision-maker to make decisions on their behalf. A lawyer usually prepares it at the same time as the will (they DO have a will, right?).

Power of Attorney for Personal Care

This POA allows the substitute decision-maker to make decisions about your loved one’s health care if they are incapable of doing so. It includes decisions about medical care and interventions, housing, clothing and other aspects of their personal life.

Living Will

Does your loved one want intubation or life support measures of any means even if there is no hope of recovery, or do they choose not to be resuscitated? Do they want to be an organ donor? A Living Will speaks for them when they cannot.

Non-continuing Power of Attorney for Property

The Non-continuing POA has a start and end date, and applies to specific tasks such as bill payments, investments, property maintenance, taxes and other things. It is intended for times when a person is temporarily unable to manage their affairs.

Continuing Power of Attorney for Property

The Continuing POA allows the substitute decision-maker to take care of all property, financial matters, insurance, deposits and payments and to apply for benefits. The terms can be as broad or as narrow as needed. A POA is in effect until it is revoked or the person who created it dies. If the POA terminates because of death, there must be a named executor who can take over to deal with the estate because the substitute decision-maker no longer has authority after death.

The Importance of Having a Will

Does your loved one have a valid will? If a person dies “intestate” (without a will) a court will appoint an administrator and the assets will be dispersed according to a provincial formula, which can vary from province to province. These rules determine who is considered family and who gets what, which may be very different from the deceased’s wishes.

Do-it-yourself wills (tick the boxes) may not follow the laws in your loved one’s province of residence and could be contested or invalidated. Many do-it-yourself wills are based on US estate law. It is worth the investment to have a will prepared by a lawyer.

Things to Consider when Drafting a Will:

  • Does the will name a spouse as the beneficiary? If so, then all property in the estate will transfer to the spouse without triggering tax in the estate. However, if there is no spouse, or the will names a different beneficiary, then there is a “deemed disposition” of all assets—they are considered to have been sold at fair market value on the date of death— and any gains will be subject to tax in the estate. For example, a cottage that has been in the family for decades (and is not your principal residence), and has increased in value over time, could result in significant capital gains.
  • The executor of your estate is responsible for filing tax returns and paying any tax owing. They also obtain a clearance certificate from the Canada Revenue Agency to indicate that all outstanding taxes have been paid. At that point, the executor can legally distribute any remaining assets to the beneficiaries.
  • Is the person named in the will as executor still willing and able to do the job? Is the person trustworthy? Is the person a resident of Canada? To avoid adverse tax consequences, it’s best if the will names an executor who is a Canadian resident for income tax purposes (they reside in Canada for more than 182 days in a calendar year).
  • Does the will name a guardian for any minor children, or dependents with physical or mental impairments? Are there adequate financial provisions for future needs in place?
  • Blended families can raise complications. Does your loved one have an ex-spouse or children from a previous relationship? Are there provisions in the separation agreement or divorce decree that need to be considered, such as financial arrangements for dependent children?
  • Make a list of all assets, including real estate holdings, life insurance policies, investments and other assets and bring it to the meeting with the wills and estates lawyer. If there are special bequests, such as family heirlooms or works of art that are intended for specific people, make a list and bring it with you. Include the name, address and age of any beneficiary.
  • If minor children are the beneficiaries, any assets they inherit will have to be held in trust until they reach the age of majority. The will can also state the age at which children, even non-minor children, can inherit the assets.
  • Check the beneficiary designations on any insurance policies to ensure they are current. More than one ex-spouse has received a financial windfall because an insurance policy beneficiary designation wasn’t updated! Double check to ensure the designation was not part of a divorce or separation agreement.
  • If you name a beneficiary for your life insurance or registered accounts (RRSPs, RRIFs, TFSAs), those assets usually pass to those beneficiaries outside the estate and don’t go through probate. Consider naming a secondary or contingent beneficiary in case your primary beneficiary dies before you do.
  • Are there any charitable donations to be made? You will need to specify the amount, as well as the full name and address of the charity.

Making Final Arrangements

  • What kind of funeral/burial/memorial does your loved one want? Is there a burial plot purchased? Have funeral arrangements been pre-paid? Ask and write it down. Include details about flowers, memorial or charitable donations, favourite music, readings and so on. If you can have a family meeting where everyone is present, so much the better. Having clear instructions makes decision-making simpler at an emotionally difficult time, and prevents family arguments about whether mom wanted the casket open or dad wanted bagpipes. This information can be informal and does not form part of the will. 

Taxes

It can be expensive to care for an ill or disabled family member. But tax relief is available in the form of certain tax credits that as the caregiver, you may be able to claim when you file your tax return.

Reality Check

You will need to become an instant expert on medication, medical appointments, finances, equipment, specialists, long-term care options—the list is endless and involves waiting lists, forms and criteria to be met. There might need to be renovations to make the home more accessible or a new vehicle to accommodate a wheelchair or walker.

Whenever possible, get help. Doctors’ offices and elder care agencies can provide lists of community resources for things like volunteer drivers, personal care support and meal delivery. You should try to attend medical appointments to keep track of any changes in the person’s condition and, share other responsibilities with family members or friends. Getting groceries delivered can be very handy.

Can your pharmacist package medications that must be taken at the same time each day into a blister pack to make it easier to remember which pill has been taken and at what time of day? That way, you can tell at a glance if a dose was missed. Also, does the pharmacy deliver? Can the occupational therapist, caseworker or physiotherapist come to you? Don’t be afraid to ask. Time takes on a new value and any thing that saves your energy and reduces stress on your loved one is a good thing.

Mental and Emotional Health

Caregiver Fatigue

When you become a caregiver, it is often without any formal medical training or advance preparation, and you may already have a busy lifestyle.

Signs of Caregiver Fatigue:

  • Withdrawal from family or friends
  • Loss of interest in your favorite activities
  • Crushing fatigue
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Illnesses that you can’t shake
  • Feeling of hopelessness
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm

How to avoid this problem

  • Talk to a trusted friend. Having a safe person to vent to about the not so great aspects of caregiving is a lifesaver. If you can’t leave your loved one, ask your friend to bring along the coffees to you and find a quiet spot to talk, even if it’s the front porch.
  • Talk to a professional. There’s no shame in asking for help and support. You can’t take care of your loved one if you are stumbling.
  • Do something for yourself. It might feel selfish but taking care of yourself first allows you to keep taking care of the other person. Take the time to do something just for you, even if it’s 10 minutes to sit on the porch and read a chapter of your book or flip through a magazine.
  • Take a break. Can someone cover for you for a weekend? Many long-term care facilities offer respite beds that are available for a day or two. Even delaying tasks for an hour or two and doing something for yourself can help you manage.
  • Be gentle with yourself. It’s tough to watch your invincible mom turn into a frail old woman in front of your eyes. It’s okay to grieve the loss of the person she was.
  • Breathe. Remember, it’s just as tough on your loved one to have to rely on help and sometimes the frustration is taken out on you. Take a deep breath, hold for a count of 10, and release for a count of 10 a few times. The angry words will have less impact on you.

Resources

Community Organizations

  • If you are taking care of someone with cancer, the Canadian Cancer Society is a great source of helpful information, and they have locations across Canada. Check out cancer.ca under Support and Services.
  • The Alzheimer Society of Canada offers resources, support, counselling and information. Go to alzheimer.ca under We can help.
  • Elder Care Canada (eldercarecanada.ca) provides information and support for adult children dealing with elderly parents. They offer information on everything from discussions with your parents and setting up home care to preparing a home for sale.
  • Government Support

    • The Compassionate Care Benefits Program is a federal program that allows a caregiver to take up to 26 weeks (6 months) off work to care for a family member at risk of dying. It is run through the Employment Insurance program and allows you to collect benefits while you care for your loved one.
    • You may be able to claim a family caregiver amount and a disability tax credit on your income tax return. You may need back-up documentation to prove your claims. Speak with a financial advisor about how to claim these deductions.
    • You may be eligible for a federal home accessibility tax credit of up to $10,000 for renovations you need to make your home more accessible.
    • The Canada Benefits Finder allows you to search for federal and provincial benefits that can be tailored to your specific situation.

    Other Resources

    • The Ontario March of Dimes Home and Vehicle Modification Program offers residents of Ontario up to $15,000 to make accessibility modifications to a home or vehicle. March of Dimes Canada also provides a list of similar programs by province.
    • Ask your family doctor, hospital or local mental health unit for a list of other resources such as support groups, counselling services and respite information.

    Becoming a caregiver can be an overwhelming challenge. Getting organized and reminding yourself of these key points will be essential to tackling that challenge, particularly to avoid caregiver burnout. Once you find a rhythm in your new role, you’ll be able to do the best you can to take care of your loved ones—and yourself.


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