Carers Week is a chance to raise awareness of care and highlight the challenges faced by unpaid carers, while recognising their ongoing contributions in families and communities throughout the UK. This year’s theme is ‘Making Caring Visible’, and with recent figures suggesting millions of additional people now have unpaid care responsibilities, their efforts should be acknowledged and supported.
The arrival of Carers Week also provides opportunity to review the picture of social care and the parts of the system most in need of attention. Age UK continues to campaign for changes to our ‘broken’ care system, to better support the 9.1 million unpaid carers in the UK. We know from research that carers are 7 times more likely to say they often or always feel lonely than the general population, while being almost twice as anxious.
While great work has been done, our successes in these areas have given way to a challenge that makes our efforts more necessary than ever. The coronavirus crisis has been hard on all of us but as we have seen in heart-breaking news stories, those providing unpaid care and those working in the social care system have been particularly hard hit. It’s a really scary time for some carers and their loved ones, which is why Age UK has pledged this Carers Week – and always – to be here for carers when they need us most.
Help for carers looking after a loved one
If you look after a partner, relative or friend who is disabled or ill due to physical or mental health, you are a carer. Find out about the support available to you.
A worsening picture
Those feelings of loneliness and anxiety will have worsened during the recent period of seismic change brought about by the coronavirus outbreak – the impact of which soon became evident to carers. Early in the lockdown I spoke to Joyce, who provides care for her husband ever since he suffered a severe stroke several years ago, about how quickly the coronavirus outbreak had intensified her situation. “I’ve only been isolated for a week now and already I can feel the difference,” she admitted. “[Our] children don’t want to come in case they bring anything. I don’t generally get depressed, but with total isolation, being a carer 24/7 without any breaks or being able to go out anywhere, I think you could soon get very low in your mood. In turn, this would affect you doing your job as a carer.”
Millions of people were in situations similar to Joyce earlier this year, doing invaluable work keeping people well, though their efforts often went unseen and unheard. Now they have to deal with the added pressure of trying to ensure they, and the person being cared for – more than likely in a ‘high risk’ category – don’t catch coronavirus, as either situation could have a dire outcome. And while, ordinarily, these carers might be able to rely on respite support or other family members to shoulder the strain, lack of coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) to monitor and limit the chances of infection has rendered this impossible.
A massive influx of new carers
The arrival of coronavirus has also brought about a massive influx of new carers, too, making their plight impossible to ignore. Figures released to coincide with this year’s Carers Week suggest that in the UK an additional 4.5 million people have begun caring for older, disabled or seriously ill relatives or friends as a result of the pandemic What’s more, 2.8 million (62%) are doing so while alongside their own paid work, resulting in a difficult balancing act.
This means there are now 13.6 million unpaid carers in the UK, an estimated 26% of the adult population (1 in 4), who are stepping up to provide loved ones with the help they need. This comes with sacrifice, a Carers UK survey found that 70% of respondents confirmed their role as carer had a negative impact on their physical and mental health, and 65% suggested they’re not able to take any time away from these responsibilities.
The stories we’re hearing from carers, particularly older carers, add distressing detail to this picture. “My husband has vascular dementia and [he] is deteriorating all the time,” S* told us. “I am his sole carer and do virtually everything for him. Currently there is no day care so I am struggling through each day isolated with him. I have to watch over him 24/7 and am now on antidepressants as it is so wearing and I have virtually no life of my own.”
There is a silver lining. I am pleased that the general public is seeing and hearing about the efforts of carers during the coronavirus crisis and the lack of support they receive. A recent poll by Carers UK revealed that 50% of respondents said they were more aware of unpaid carers, while 69% of respondents felt that the Government has not supported unpaid carers during the outbreak, and 65% thought unpaid carers weren’t valued.
It’s time to capitalise on this wider awareness and ensure decision-makers take notice. Right now carers need the appropriate PPE and testing to allow them to protect the wellbeing of themselves and the people they’re caring for. Age UK and the five other charities supporting Carers Week – Carers UK, Carers Trust, Motor Neurone Disease Association, Oxfam GB and Rethink Mental Illness – are calling on the Government to do just this.
My colleague Daisy Cooney, Age UK’s Policy Manager, has been working hard to raise our serious concerns about these shortfalls. “We are closely monitoring what is happening in care around the country and listening to the experiences of people who receive and provide social care,” she explained recently. “This means we can tell the Government and social care sector about measures, including access to emergency funding, that need to be taken to keep people safe right now and in the future."
Beyond addressing these immediate concerns here must also be a long term fix to provide a robust carer system to ensure these unsung heroes receive the support they need, with social care reform and funding that enables them to receive the support many are so in need of.
My colleagues and I will continue to do everything in our power to campaign to make this happen.
What to do next
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*Name abbreviated to protect identity of interviewee.