With an exponential rise of unpaid carers during the pandemic and no increase in support provisions, the hidden workforce is at risk of being left behind.
Unpaid carers provide a lifeline of support for millions across the UK, with people often not realising that they qualify as an unpaid carer and missing out on vital support.
The community saw a dramatic increase during the pandemic as services were forced to close and loved ones took on new or additional responsibilities.
In June 2020, just months after the first nationwide lockdown began, the number of unpaid carers had already increased by 4.5 million people, leaving a total of 13.6 million unpaid carers isolated and at risk of being forgotten.
When the UK went into lockdown, the message to stay at home also meant millions becoming carers overnight, with many people caring for loved ones who experienced severe symptoms and long-lasting effects from contracting COVID-19.
Sonia Benitez is the head of services at Carers Network, who support unpaid carers in three London boroughs and online. The charity found themselves going above and beyond to ensure unpaid carers and their families were looked after during this time.
“At the beginning of the pandemic some of them were very basic needs types of calls, food for example,” explains Sonia. “As it progressed the type of queries progressed as well, we started to see more queries about mental health; carers were getting very stressed and exhausted, calls about how to manage the behaviour of loved ones if there was a mental health problem or [an] illness like dementia.”
The enquiries for support also turned to worries around benefit applications and finances as more people were furloughed or lost their jobs.
Karen is an unpaid carer, supporting her nephew to manage his mental health condition. Her caring responsibilities include cooking, cleaning and buying food shopping, and liaising with his care coordinator, acting as an advocate on his behalf.
“My first waking thoughts are thinking about what I can do to support him better which can be rather intense; I often forget my own needs to ensure that he has the support he needs,” admits Karen.
Conscious of the increase in the number of unpaid carers in the UK, Karen’s concerns also lie with the support that the group will receive moving forward, she says: “Carers, whether paid or unpaid, are human and take on the role as a carer due to their caring nature in addition to the decreasing support from government.”
When most services were moved online overnight, it highlighted a new realm of barriers that unpaid carers face in day-to-day life, and ones that often stem from a lack of proper financial recognition and support.
“We were quite concerned about carers who were not accessing technology,” reveals Sonia. “We found that digital exclusion was a big challenge for carers, particularly in the beginning and mid phase of the pandemic where pretty much all information that organisations were disseminating was online.”
Digital exclusion is increasingly becoming an issue, and not just for unpaid carers: in a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2020, 78 per cent of respondents said that the pandemic has escalated the need for digital skills.
The same research found that disabled people were less likely to use the internet daily or almost daily than non-disabled people.
An already widening gap in access to social care, support is now even greater because of barriers to digital inclusion.
“Unfortunately, there are now thousands of people living with long COVID and in need of a carer, and as most processes are now online, with many unpaid carers are on low incomes or on benefits they cannot afford monthly Wi-Fi subscriptions,” emphasises Karen, who believes measures like reduced Wi-Fi costs for carers could aid the situation.
“This would help carers on low incomes to register with pharmacies and access the medication delivery service, and also to book GP appointments and medical consultations online.”
To implement measures that improve digital access, unpaid carers need to be recognised first.
“One of the challenges in carer representation is visibility, sometimes it’s because they aren’t recognised by the general public and sometimes it’s because they don’t recognise themselves as carers,” suggests Sonia.
“When you look after your mum who has dementia or your partner who uses a wheelchair, you do that because that’s what you do, you wouldn’t necessarily use the word carer or qualify yourself as such.
Without better recognition, unpaid carers will remain without access to necessary tools and resources.
“There are obvious impacts on carers’ emotional wellbeing – stress, their physical health if they are having to lift a loved one with mobility issues for example, if their sleep is impacted due to caring through the night, that’s going to have an impact on their health, and actually, implications about loneliness and relationships it’s come to light a lot more which can only be a positive thing,” enthuses Sonia.
The pandemic has highlighted the services unpaid carers provide each day, but now, the government needs to promise greater support to ensure they can look after their own health, too.