Staggering though it sounds, nearly 11 million people will take on an unpaid caring role for older, sick or disabled loved ones over the course of the next Parliament. Yet families are finding it more difficult to get support, leading to detrimental effects on their health, finances and relationships.
So many people start caring for a parent, a partner, a child or close friend who becomes ill or disabled and simply see it as part and parcel of family life. Many people don’t see themselves as carers but as husbands, partners, wives, a sister or brother. But it can have a significant impact on their lives.
Becoming a carer is something that most of us will face at some point in our lives. Many of us will do it several times. Caring either gathers pace as someone becomes increasingly frail or ill or comes suddenly overnight along with a stroke, accident or sudden illness. The impact that this can have on our lives matters even more when we consider how much more we will all be caring for our relatives as our population ages.
The number of people providing care for family members is set to increase owing to an ageing population and the fact that those with long-term illnesses are living longer as a result of medical developments.
And yet the numbers able to access social care services in England are falling year-on-year as families feel the effects of cuts to services.
On top of that, research estimates that a staggering £1bn worth of cuts to carers’ benefits will have been made by 2018.
At this point in time, there are an astonishing six-and-a-half million people in the UK caring for a relative or friend. One in every eight adults. And we also know that many children have caring responsibilities, too. The impact of caring can run deep. One in three carers cannot afford to pay their utility bills and 44 per cent have ended up in debt. Carers are twice as likely to be in bad health. Three-quarters say they find it hard to maintain relationships and social networks because people do not understand the impact that caring has.
More than two million people have given up their jobs to care at some point in their lives and three million have reduced their working hours.
Many carers are struggling and this is socially and economically unsustainable.
Carers giving up work to care costs the UK economy around £5bn a year, with businesses losing a further £3.5bn.
A lack of support now will also bring much greater long-term costs to our health and care services as rising numbers of carers reach breaking point and are no longer able to provide care.
As we approach the General Election, it is vital that the next Government listens to the voices of carers.
They want to be able to manage financially and feel valued. They want good quality, reliable and affordable care services. They want health services that recognise and support them as carers. They want to stay in work as long as possible when they choose to and a benefits and tax system which supports carers to work. These are all relatively modest demands when you consider that the support provided by relatives is worth a huge £119bn a year – equivalent to a second NHS.
There are several key areas where we need to see change. Research carried out by Carers UK suggests that the UK is lagging far behind other countries like Japan and the US in terms of workplace rights for carers.
This is something that could be addressed fairly quickly, by giving carers a right to between five to 10 days’ paid leave.
Carers need to be supported financially, particularly those who are struggling. Carers have told us that they want to see politicians pledging to reduce the huge costs associated with caring and to improve the main carer’s benefit, Carer’s Allowance, which is currently the lowest benefit of its kind.
The NHS urgently needs to become more carer-friendly, to become better at identifying carers and ensuring that their health and well-being is considered.
Too often carers say they feel ignored and invisible and yet are expected to shoulder huge caring responsibilities.
Finally, there needs to be better recognition of carers and they must be provided with information and advice when they need it.
Families tell us there is often so much to learn and a great deal of complex information to take on. Situations change and so do entitlements – the right information and advice is vital.
Overall, there is a strong economic, social and moral imperative to ensure that families are helped with caring responsibilities, not left to struggle on their own.
No one should have to care alone and preventing this must be a priority for us all.