Home caregivers say they're falling through the cracks of B.C.'s vaccine rollout

·4 min read
Dale Shearar, middle, with her husband Stewart Shearar, right, and caregiver Eryn Arnott at the Shearars' home in North Vancouver on Thursday.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Dale Shearar, middle, with her husband Stewart Shearar, right, and caregiver Eryn Arnott at the Shearars' home in North Vancouver on Thursday. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Stewart Shearar's wife Dale needs around-the-clock care.

Dale is 65 years old and has already received her first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine because her Huntington's disease diagnosis makes her extremely vulnerable to illness.

But her husband, who Dale depends on for her care at their North Vancouver, B.C., home, has been told he won't get a shot until he becomes eligible with the rest of the province's population aged 60 and above.

"That makes no sense to me at all because I'm more likely to get [COVID-19] than Dale, because Dale really doesn't leave the house all that much," said Shearar, 63.

"Who would look after Dale if I got it or [our caregiver] got it? There'd be nobody to take care of her. What would happen then?"

Shearar says he got a call from Vancouver Coastal Health more than a week ago offering his wife the vaccine. When he asked if he and the family's live-in caregiver would also be vaccinated, he was told they weren't eligible because of their ages.

Dale Shearar, left, has been given the COVID-19 vaccine due to her Huntington's disease. But her husband and in-home caregiver have not.
Dale Shearar, left, has been given the COVID-19 vaccine due to her Huntington's disease. But her husband and in-home caregiver have not. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'Invisible' caregivers

Family Caregivers of B.C. estimates Shearar is one of over 800,000 British Columbians providing care to seniors who live in the community.

While essential visitors of seniors in long-term care and other congregate-living settings have received shots, those who provide home care aren't yet eligible to book vaccine appointments, even if the person they care for is vulnerable enough to get one.

"We're the ones who are out there looking after our significant others and they're reliant completely upon us to take care of their needs," said Shearar.

CBC News has reached out to the Ministry of Health for clarification on whether home caregivers will be prioritized in the immunization rollout but has not received a response.

People like Shearar feel invisible, says Family Caregivers of B.C. executive director Barb McLean.

"It's really part of a bigger systemic issue in health care, where family and caregivers are really generally invisible," McLean told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

"That's in spite of the fact that they're providing over 80 per cent of the care in our province."

A 2019 report on home care by the province's seniors' advocate estimated that a fifth of seniors in the community are living with highly complex conditions — like Dale Shearar, whose neurological disease has caused her physical and cognitive skills to degenerate quickly.

"She can hardly walk," said her husband. "Because of the effect of the Huntington's disease on the vocal chords, she can no longer speak and she's completely incontinent and she needs full-time care."

Listen to Stewart Shearar explain his wife's need for home care:

Pandemic taking toll on families

The 2019 report also found that a third of family caregivers are in distress. McLean says that's only gotten worse during the pandemic.

"About 55 per cent of people say their mental health is worse and 44 per cent say that physical health is worse. We really need to focus on the wellbeing of caregivers," McLean said.

A 2019 report found that about one-third of family caregivers are in distress
A 2019 report found that about one-third of family caregivers are in distress(Ben Nelms/CBC)

Shearar's frustration has led him to reach out to his local MLA, Susie Chant.

The North Vancouver—Seymour MLA says the province's vaccination policy is prioritizing stopping deaths and serious illness, as well as controlling outbreaks.

"Currently, as our province undergoes the largest vaccine rollout in its history, health officials are having to make some difficult decisions around how to use our limited vaccine supply," Chant wrote in an email to Shearar.

"There are a few cases who fall through the cracks in terms of logic."

Chant added that she hopes future changes to B.C.'s vaccine rollout will address people in Shearar's situation.

Listen to Barb McLean talk about how family caregivers are being overlooked: