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Older carers left to fill the gap as our social care system crumbles

By: Age UK
Published on 14 December 2017 12:01 AM

New figures from Age UK reveal the shocking extent to which millions of older people are being left to prop up the country’s disintegrating care system, with those aged 65 and over providing nearly 54 million hours of unpaid care each week in England in 2016.

The figures highlight the rising demands being placed on older informal carers as Government underfunding causes the social care safety net to shrink, resulting in increasing numbers of our older population in need of care, being thrown back on their own and their family’s resources.

In 2015/16, over two and a quarter million (2,299,200) people aged 65 and over provided care – a 16.6% increase on five years ago when 1,829,200 did so.

Over 400,000 (404,400) of these unpaid carers are from the oldest demographic in our society (aged 80 and over), and they provided 12.7 million hours of care in 2015/16 – a 12.7% increase from 2009/10.

Most older people willingly take on the task of helping to care for a loved one – usually but not always a husband or wife – and don’t think of themselves as doing anything out of the ordinary. However, leaving older people to shoulder too much, or sometimes all of the responsibility and hard work of looking after someone in declining health and with significant care needs is unfair. It can also put these older family carers’ own health at risk, and many of them are coping with health problems themselves.

Over half (54.8%) of people aged 65 and over who provide at least one hour of care have a long-standing illness or disability – equating to well over a million people (1,262,500), or one in ten (10.7%) of all these family carers aged 65 and over.

In addition, sadly, research by Age UK reveals that nearly a third (28.9%) of informal carers aged 65+ are experiencing feelings of loneliness. Caring for a loved one whether they be a family member or a friend can make it difficult to sustain your own social networks as it is hard to get away to see people unless someone else can take over from you. Unfortunately however, loneliness can have a negative impact on an older person’s mental and physical health, compounding the serious challenges many older carers already face.

Urgent action needed

Age UK is calling for urgent action to ensure the sustainability of the care system, to protect older carers from being expected to do too much as formal services decline. This must include an immediate injection of funding into social care in the Local Government settlement, due to be announced before Christmas. In addition, older family carers need far more support, including respite opportunities.

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director said:

'I have heard that there’s a view in some parts of Whitehall that the State can go on underfunding social care because enough good-hearted family members will continue to step in, despite the personal cost, and take on the role for free. This is extremely complacent and, as these new figures show, it risks undermining the health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of older people who want to help a loved one, but who we can’t expect to do it all themselves.

'How can we explain to older people the Government’s decision not even to mention social care in the Budget, let alone announce further investment, despite the overwhelming evidence that the system needs an urgent injection of extra funds? The most recent warning came from the Competition and Markets Authority, who concluded in an authoritative report just last week that the care home market is broken and financially unsustainable.

'The Government has an early opportunity to make amends for its neglect of social care by putting significantly more money into it in the Local Government Settlement, due to be published soon. The care funding gap has been estimated by experts at £2.5bn so this is the kind of investment they should be making.'

'The Government announced in November that it would be bringing forward proposals to strengthen social care and place it on a sustainable financial basis, but not until summer next year. But Age UK is concerned that the millions of older people who provide care, as well as who receive it, can’t wait and equally worried by the prospect of more care services going before the end of the financial year. The Government must act decisively now.'

Carers UK’s Chief Executive Heléna Herklots CBE said:

'This research demonstrates that older carers are at breaking point, with many witnessing a fall in support as their hours of caring increase. As we approach the New Year, we know that many older carers will be looking into the future with a great deal of uncertainty. It is vital that the Government recognises the growing pressures on carers and commits to increased funding for social care as a matter of priority.

'Additionally, given the clear correlation between longer caring hours and loneliness, revealed by Carers UK’s own research as well as Age UK’s, we cannot afford to continue ignoring the issue of isolation which carries such a heightened risk of mental and physical ill-health. We know that regular breaks from caring make a significant difference to combatting this loneliness, yet access across the UK remains inadequate and patchy. The Government must couple any measures to address shortcomings in our social care system with tangible improvements to respite access. Without a transparent and sustained system of funding for breaks, more carers will struggle to keep going in their roles. The government must act now in order to alleviate the growing strain on older carers which will only increase if left ignored until summer next year.'

Care stories

The stories below reflect just some of cases outlined in the release and are representative of calls received. Names, gender and certain details and characteristics have been changed to preserve our callers’ confidentiality. 

  • Carol’s Father-in-law (81 years of age) has Alzheimer’s, and her Mother-in-Law is pushing herself to the limit in providing the necessary care. As a result, the Mother-in-Law’s health has severely deteriorated, which has seen her repeatedly admitted to hospital, due to fluctuating blood pressure. This has begun to impact on the finances of the wider family, with relatives taking unpaid leave to provide care to Carol’s Father-In-Law whilst her Mother-In-Law is in hospital. 
  • Nigel aged 67 was forced to take on full-time caring responsibilities for his wife also 67 , whilst still employed in a full time role. The combined stresses of these roles led to him developing a number of health issues – predominantly through stress – before being forced to sell his home to pay for care.
  • Debbie’s parents are both in their mid-90s, and developing signs of living with dementia. Despite the fact that their parents have four carers between them – arranged and funded through the local authority – Debbie and her husband are having to fill the gaps between carer visits, which is becoming increasingly difficult.
  • Chris’s parents are also in their mid-90s. His father is main carer and suffers from a heart condition, high blood pressure and diabetes. He is 'worn out' and struggling to support his wife who keeps trying to pack her bags and leave the house during the night.

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Last updated: Dec 05 2018

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