An estimated seven million carers in the UK provide invaluable care to their loved ones, saving the government millions of pounds annually. But what more can the government be doing to support unpaid carers?
Carers Week (10-16 June) celebrates all the hard work done by carers across the country, and recognises the ongoing issues faced by those who unexpectedly find themselves caring for a loved one.
A carer is someone who looks after a family member or friend who has a long-term illness, disability or mental health problem. Many have to care full-time, and as a result, have to give up working. This can lead to financial strain, isolation and can be emotionally draining.
Elaine Yates became a carer to husband Michael in 2004, after he sustained a brain injury.
“I was given the option to carry on with my career and for Michael to go into care,” remembers Elaine.
“We’d only been married for nine years when he sustained his brain injury and there was no way I was going to let my husband go into care or have anybody else look after him. It wasn’t a choice really. I gave up my career, became his carer and have been ever since.”
As many carers do, Elaine experiences isolation, which has led to mental health issues in the past.
“I can’t go out or just pop over to the other side of town because I’ve got to find someone to look after him,” Elaine continues. “During my respite, I do my weekly shop; it’s very difficult to take Michael shopping. That’s not respite.
“If we go on holiday, I’m still a carer, I’m not me. The only time I feel like me is when Michael’s still in bed in the morning and I take my dog for a walk. The isolation and loneliness is unreal.”
One of the main causes of mental health problems among carers is the stress of financial strain.
“In 2015, we were paying £5.85 a week towards his care,” explains Elaine. “Last week we got a letter to say we’d have to pay £178 a week. After battling, it’s gone down to £99 a week. I always dread that letter dropping through the letter box.
“It’s quite distressing and I am frightened. Sometimes you think ‘I’m not going to say anything’, but there are a lot of people who haven’t got a voice like I do.”
Unpaid carers save the UK government £132 billion annually: almost the same as the cost of a second NHS.
“We save the government all this money by looking after people we love, but we’re not given pensions, we’re not given holidays, we’re not given anything,” says Elaine.
“We’re just expected to do it – which we do – but we’re being ignored. The people that make decisions are not in our shoes, living our lives. They don’t understand.”
“When you’re helping to look after someone, it’s easy to think of yourself as doing what any family member would do, but putting others first can often mean putting your own needs second,” explains Helen Walker, the chief executive of Carers UK. “Many carers find their own health needs and relationships suffer without the right support. We want to see carer-friendly health services that help get carers connected to the support they need.
“Adequate funding and provision of care and support services are critical to supporting unpaid carers: with 1.2million carers living in poverty, there must be better financial support.”
In 2018, the government announced the Carers Action Plan, a plan to recognise the work of unpaid carers, and provide them with the support they need, by 2020.
This includes raising awareness of caring realities, improving employment opportunities, access to support for young carers and boosting access to community support.
The government is on track to deliver on the Action Plan by 2020, and are clear in their understanding of the valuable work unpaid carers do. The Action Plan is a commitment towards increased support, at a time when many carers feel undervalued.
Charities around the country also work tirelessly to provide support and advice to carers. Carers UK, CarersTrust, Age UK and Sense are just a few of the charities providing guidance.
The services unpaid carers provide the country is irreplaceable, and it is time that more is done to recognise the enormous contribution they make to society.
“There is help out there,” Elaine urges. “Find your local carers group and talk to them. Don’t be afraid to tell people how you feel, because just to talk and offload is the biggest help that anybody can give. To have someone to listen to you and to share that problem: it’s halved.”
60 per cent of the UK population will become a carer at some point in their lives
Every day, 6,000 people take on a caring responsibility
58 per cent of carers are women; 42 per cent are men
One in five carers gives up employment to care full-time
Over 1.4 million peopleprovide over 50 hours of unpaid care each week
72 per cent of carers say their mental health has suffered as a result of caring
53 per cent of carers have borrowed money as a result of their caring role; 23 per cent have had to re-mortgage their house, or downsize to a smaller property