Carers Week 2014: Why Britain’s 6.5 million carers need more support

Millions of Britons are unpaid carers (Picture: Carers UK)

Napoleon famously said Britain was a nation of shopkeepers, but we are quickly becoming a country of carers.

One in eight adults are now carers, looking after a friend or family member who is facing illness, disability or frailty. That means 6.5m people are offering unpaid care to a loved one, often round-the-clock, usually to the detriment of their personal and working lives and sometimes to the detriment of their own health. Unfortunately, campaigners say carers are not getting the support they need to keep looking after the people they love.

‘As a country, we vastly underestimate just how much caring is done,’ said Heléna Herklots, chief executive of Carers UK. ‘We sometimes think we’re an uncaring society. Well, 6.5m people caring suggests otherwise.’

And the figure is set to rise in the next few years as an ageing population needs looking after. Carers UK predicts that there will be 9m carers in 20 years’ time.

‘All of us at some point in our lives are either going to be caring for someone or need the help of a carer, so it’s in all our interests to get better support in place and to really recognise the huge contribution that carers make to our society,’ said Herklots.

‘Sometimes it can happen very suddenly. You can be thrown into a whole different world that you’ve never had to think about before and it can feel quite frightening and very complex.’

Despite this, there is a reluctance on the part of large swathes of the public to accept the realities. In a survey published by Carers UK and YouGov to coincide with Carers Week, which begins today, less than a third of non-carers believe they are likely to become one in the near future. The poll also revealed that just nine per cent of people know the true scale of Britain’s care issue. Amongst carers themselves, 53 per cent said they are not receiving enough support.

In theory, those looking after loved ones have rights to help from their local authority, while charities, businesses and the NHS are also on hand.

There is also a government grant, the Carer’s Allowance, which offers financial support. But campaigners say this is too low – the allowance is currently £61.35 per week and is available for anyone providing at least 35 hours of care a week to someone. Carers must earn £102 or less to be eligible.

‘Carers deserve a better deal,’ said Herklots, who pointed out that many people eligible for Carer’s Allowance aren’t applying for it because they are unaware of the help available.

Members of the public and businesses are being asked to reach out to carers this week to let them know that help for Britain’s ‘invisible army’ is out there.

Sometimes the people devoting their lives to helping a loved one don’t classify themselves as a carer.

Antonia Kadri, 33, from London, cares for her mother, who had polio as a child and has limited mobility. Antonia, now an ambassador at Carers UK, has been a carer since she was a child, but she said it took a long time for her to even recognise she was one.

‘Being in a room for the first time with other carers and the realisation there are lots of people out there in similar situations was overwhelming and empowering at the same time,’ she said.

‘It would have been nice to have had more support when I was at school, particularly at a young age. There was nothing from the school and I’ve had no support from the government until recent years.’

Herklots said: ‘It can take a few years sometimes before you realise that what you’re doing means you are a carer.’

She said carers are forced to deal with both physical and emotional strain and often feel isolated.

‘Carers are struggling,’ she said. ‘More carers are finding they are not getting the support that they need. Over half the carers say they aren’t getting enough support. If they can’t cope, it means the person they’re caring for might need additional help from a health service or social services. As well as being the right thing to do to support carers, it’s also economically the right thing to do.’

She said the NHS would collapse without unpaid carers, who save the health service almost £120bn a year.

About 1.4m people in Britain spend more than 50 hours a week caring for someone, while more than 177,000 teenagers have caring responsibilities. It is an issue that affects young and old.

Herklots said: ‘We are living longer, which is good news, so the need for care from family and loved ones is increasing all the time but the support for carers to do that isn’t. And that’s not sustainable.

‘Many carers tell us they simply don’t have time to think about their own health because they’re so busy caring. You might feel you can never switch off. If we don’t do more to support carers then the situation will get worse for them and potentially for the people they are looking after as well.

‘It’s part of human nature that we want to care for each other but that has to not be at the cost of our own wellbeing.’