The massive contribution unpaid carers make every day across the UK has, eventually, been brought to light due to the pandemic. But, more still needs to be done to support the needs of carers.
Increased caring responsibilities to growing numbers of unpaid carers due to the ripple effects of the pandemic, unpaid carers are a staple in society and the backbone of local communities.
As we spent the last year working to keep ourselves and others safe, many unpaid carers had additional concerns in regards to the protection of the most vulnerable people in our society and those they care for.
Liz Sawyer and Laurence Smith care for their son, Jeremy, 28, who spent the majority of lockdown in his care home, 40 miles away from his parents, with no physical visits from Liz and Laurence.
As Jeremy lives with severe learning disabilities and additional complex physical needs he is in the extremely clinical vulnerable group; shielding has led to severe disruptions to Jeremy’s routine.
For both Liz and Laurence, there were concerns for the safety of Jeremy in his home as two residents and many members of staff fell ill with the coronavirus, unfortunately, one passed away.
Liz continues: “We wondered how Jeremy would handle this upset, sadness and less familiar staff. Jeremy is a very sociable young adult and we were concerned about how he would cope with the new quarantine and social distancing restrictions.”
For Laurence, going weeks without seeing Jeremy physically was a further challenge as father and son have an incredibly close bond. Regrettably, this is the experience of many families across the UK.
Connecting over Skype, the interaction with Jeremy, who prefers to communicate and interact by holding hands, instantly changed for everyone.
“Jeremy’s Tuesday outings with Laurence and their shared lunch times stopped abruptly (and are yet to restart),” explains Liz. “Our Sunday visits were replaced by a facilitated Skype video call which Jeremy often did not respond to.”
Cancelled birthday plans, change in routine, a loss of social interaction outside of the residential home, to missing out on wellbeing therapies, lockdown had a significant impact on Jeremy. However, as the world begins to slowly re-open, after an intensive risk assessment, Laurence and Liz can now visit Jeremy. But, the couple still have apprehensions.
“Since we have begun visiting Jeremy again we sometimes restrict our own activities for fear of unknowingly picking up and passing on infection,” emphasises Liz. “Restricting our own activities impacts our own health and wellbeing.”
The impact of lockdown has not only been detrimental to disabled people, but it has had an impact on carers, too.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic unpaid carers have played an essential role supporting older, disabled and seriously ill relatives and friends, doing so most of the year on their own behind closed doors,” explains Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK.
Liz agrees: “Carers do not have the opportunity to switch-off from their caring role unless suitable respite care cover is in place. During the pandemic respite care provision was shut with no suitable alternative. Caring became an unexpected 24×7 job and other activities needed to be juggled.
“Carers could be faced with difficult and potentially life-threatening decisions. For example, whether to accept a care package for their loved one which they were apprehensive about or to risk their own physical and mental wellbeing taking a nose-dive.”
Fortunately, Liz and Laurence have great confidence in the care that Jeremy receives in his residential home, but as an active volunteer for Carers UK, Liz has heard of the challenges other carers have experienced. Despite the challenges, working together, knowing you are not alone has made a big difference.
“I feel part of a team and hearing different perspectives helps me to sharpen my own caring and wellbeing strategies.”
Connecting with other carers, and sharing experiences, is part of the celebrations for Carers Week.
Helen adds: “Carers Week is an important opportunity to make caring visible and show it is valued. With many activities taking place to mark the week we hope carers can get connected to others, join their local communities and get access to advice and support to help them with caring.”
With 6.5 million people in the UK who are carers, the theme for this year’s Carers Week is Making Caring Visible and Valued – an important theme to showcase the hard work and dedication of unpaid carers like Liz and Laurence.
It is important to know, whether you are new to caring or not, you are valued and make an important contribution to society, with help available if and when you need it.
Liz says: “Recognise you are on a journey as an unpaid carer alongside the person you are caring for. Make sure you research your rights, and take ‘me time’ to recharge.”