Across the UK, unpaid carers are the heart of communities. This Carers Week (5-11 June 2023), it’s time to recognise their vital contribution and highlight both local and national sources of support.
The importance of unpaid carers cannot be underestimated, but often their sacrifice is not recognised. People are continually forced to give up work, deplete their savings, and dismiss their social lives when adequate care isn’t available through local authorities.
As the annual Carers Week awareness campaign begins, support organisations and unpaid carers are demanding more.
A big part of the week is helping carers to identify themselves, and this year, the theme centres around recognising and supporting carers in the community.
“Often people primarily see their role as a partner, a son or daughter, a brother or sister, even a close friend or a neighbour,” highlights Emily Holzhausen OBE, the director of policy and public affairs at Carers UK. “Sometimes that means they don’t seek support for themselves until their health takes a blow or they’re finding it too hard to juggle all of their responsibilities.
“By helping people identify themselves as carers, they can connect with the different support that’s out there. It also provides a focus for all of the organisations supporting carers to really galvanise the community.”
The label of unpaid carer isn’t reserved for people who support a loved one around the clock: it is a person of any age who cares for a friend or family member from just a few hours a week, through to providing full-time care. To be an unpaid carer, you don’t have to live with the person you care for or be the sole person supporting them.
Caring could be helping someone with personal care, doing housework or food shopping, taking them to important appointments, or providing company and emotional support.
“Unpaid carers are so important in our society: they are the fabric of our communities and they need to be recognised,” emphasises Emily.
Carers Week plays a vital role in promoting resources and ensuring this message reaches the right people. During the campaign, carers are able to speak directly to politicians, not only demonstrating the sheer number of unpaid carers, but the challenges they face.
Norman, who is 71, has been the full-time carer for his wife Ros since 2008 and has a deep understanding of the need for more support. Ros lives with MS and dementia and a host of other health problems. Over the years, Norman’s role has advanced: when he first started caring for Ros, he was still at work, but as her conditions progressed, and as Norman experienced health issues of his own, he had no choice but to give up his role as a project manager. The cost of social care also resulted in Norman having to sell the family home.
“If a carer didn’t show up and I was away for work, it became this intolerable pressure, and it got to the point where I collapsed in the street one day,” remembers Norman. “I was working 50 to 60 hours a week then coming home to look after Ros, then doing all of the housework at the weekend: no one can live like that so you have to make a decision.”
Over the years, Norman has found his own approach to caring, helping to maintain Ros’ autonomy when he can.
“There’s an awful temptation to say this is what we’re doing to get things done instead of being person-driven, but my role is to give her as much choice and control as I can,” stresses Norman.
This can be as simple as following her lead if Ros decides she wants to go and get her nails done, but providing round the clock care can also be incredibly challenging.
“I do get some respite which is nice, I get it at night four times a week now so that I can get some sleep because unfortunately this is when she gets really stressed out,” shares Norman.
With an understanding of how inconsistent support can be, Norman set out to make a difference in his local community. When he needed help, Norman reached out to carers’ organisations and received support, but he wanted to use his skills to give back in his community.
Norman launched three events in his local area of Stevenage: an information point to help people identify as carers; a wellbeing event at the local leisure centre that highlights the importance of looking after your health as a carer; and a relay walk around a local lake. Through the events which take place during Carers Week, Norman has fundraised for multiple charities over the years including Carers UK and Carers in Hertfordshire.
“Rather than just give people a leaflet, one of our volunteers will take their information and do the legwork, and ask the appropriate charity to get in touch with them,” explains Norman.
“This way, we know contact has been made because when you first come to terms with the fact that you are an unpaid carer and need support, that first phone call can feel a bit awkward. When I reached out for help, I felt like I was failing but now I know I wasn’t, you’re doing the best you can and just need a bit of help.”
Although he has some access to support and the drive to help people in a similar situation, Norman can’t help but feel angry at the current state of social care.
“The frustration is for years we’ve been promised that they’re going to fix social care, but services seem to be getting thinner and thinner,” expresses Norman. “It becomes the expectation that people will take on the extra responsibility, but people can’t cope.”
Norman would always recommend reaching out to carers organisations and charities for support, or to disability-specific organisations for advice on providing care around a particular disability or condition.
“I’ve made the choice to stand by Ros until the day she doesn’t know who I am, and once we get to that stage it will be time to move her to a nursing home,” explains Norman. “But even when people make that choice, they still need access to help and support to survive.”
Visit the dedicated Carers Week website to find out more about the campaign and how to get involved (www.carersweek.org), or speak to Carers UK about accessing resources and support (www.carersuk.org, 0808 808 7777).