O Canada! Your Home and Caregiving-Compassionate Land!

If Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier was around today and reading the same news stories I've been lately, no doubt our northern neighbor's national anthem would have started off with something like "O Canada! Our home and caregiving compassionate land!" OK, so it wouldn't have been as catchy as the existing "our home and native land" lyric, but you get the point.

Reading as much as I do about sector trends, it's hard not to notice that some of the most progressive thinking and most insightful reporting on caregiving issues are coming from north of the border. Although Canada has roughly the same demographics as America with respect to the percentage of elderly -- approximately 24 percent of Canada's population will be 65 or over by 2030, compared with 20 percent in America -- Canada is miles ahead (make that kilometers) of the U.S. when it comes to getting ahead of the population shift and responding with a national perspective.

In 2004, Canada implemented Compassionate Care Benefits, a program that allows caregivers six weeks of employment insurance benefits over a six-month period. The program recognizes the importance of family at such times and takes a very progressive view in defining who is eligible under the program to provide it (anyone from parents to children to friends to common-law partners).

According to Ceridian Canada Ltd., an estimated 2.8 million working Canadians, or 17 percent of the country's workforce, have extensive caregiving responsibilities that consume nearly 24 hours a week. A report by a government-appointed panel to study the issue found these caregivers "are 45 or older, often talented and experienced employees possessing deep company or industry knowledge...people we don't want to see exit the workforce."

The Canadian government impressively is willing to earmark funds to help family caregivers manage and address their considerable issues. Canada's Social Development Partnership Program two years ago awarded a five-year, $2.84 million grant to Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital to help caregivers tending to family members with Alzheimer's Disease. Ceridian Canada and Bank of Montreal also are partners in the program.

Canadian businesses appear open to supporting the caregiving needs of its workers.
Stephen Shea, a managing partner for Ernst & Young in Canada and the chairman of the government-appointed panel, said his company's CEO and his colleagues were incredibly supportive when he needed flexible working arrangements to care for his mother when she had a debilitating stroke four years ago. As Shea so succinctly put it, juggling work and caregiving responsibilities "just grinds you over time."

At KPMG's Canadian operations, caregiving options include paid personal days, an option to commute, and a temporary reduced work schedule to deal with personal needs while maintaining a client-service role. And if employees need to be away from work completely for an extending period of time to support family and friends, they can arrange an unpaid leave with continued benefits.

America has much to learn from Canada's partnership of government and industry to address caregiving issues, particularly given that Congress can't even muster the leadership to authorize refunding for the Older Americans Act, which pays for elderly support programs such as Meals-on-Wheels and other programs aimed on keeping the elderly in their homes. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the president of New America, recently captured in the New York Times the toxicity of America's work culture given the caregiving and other challenges employees increasingly face.

Canada may be a resource-based economy, but its innovative caregiving programs that enable its most experienced workers to stay in their jobs while doing double duty as caregivers may ultimately give the country a competitive edge on the HR front.

It's an example that perhaps Congress and American businesses might want to consider...eh?