Jayne Dowle: It’s time to care about the carers who save billions

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UNPAID carers in our region save the UK economy billions every year. Not just thousands, or millions. It’s billions.

A new report from Carers UK and the University of Sheffield reveals that the 573,954 people who provide free support for disabled, seriously-ill or elderly loved ones in Yorkshire and the Humber save the country £11.2bn a year.

That’s not a misprint. It is more than £11bn. I’m staggered, but not surprised that it amounts to such a huge sum. I only have to walk out of my front door or speak to a friend or family member, and before long I’m reminded of the lengths individuals are going to in order to make sure others are safe, well, warm and fed.

What about the mother at my daughter’s school who has two disabled children and still manages to hold down a part-time job? Who knows the hours and days this woman must put in, those endless nights when one child or the other feels ill or is in pain?

However I do know that all those hours are given freely, without financial reward. She does it because there is no-one else to do it – her husband works nights – and because they both work, the family don’t meet the criteria for albeit paltry carers’ benefits.

Then there’s the family of adult sons who each take turns to ensure their elderly father with Alzheimer’s is as comfortable as he possibly can be. He’s in residential care now, but that doesn’t mean that their responsibilities have ended. It’s their (unpaid) job to visit him every day and take him on outings and activities to keep what’s left of his mind active. It’s also their job to ensure that their bereft mother has everything she needs – physically and emotionally.

I could give you myriad more examples. I’m sure, though, that it only takes a moment for you to think of your own. And each personal story must be put into a wider political context. We must ask ourselves why it is that there are so many unpaid carers in our region in particular?

Two reasons stand out; the increase in numbers of people living longer with chronic illness, and a reduction in the number of local authority care home places. It goes without saying that these two factors are in turn squeezing the provision offered by private care companies to breaking point. Anyone who has ever had to negotiate a care package for an elderly, frail or vulnerable individual will know that there simply aren’t enough professional carers at affordable cost to go around. This obviously then puts the onus on family members to fill the gap.

You might want to play devil’s advocate here and ask why not? Why shouldn’t sons and daughters look after their own parents? And to an extent, this argument rings true.

However, the people who advance this kind of argument usually exhibit two traits; they live in the past, when we all lived much closer together geographically and women (for it us who tend to do most of the caring) didn’t try and juggle a million things at once, and inevitably, they have never undertaken much in terms of caring responsibilities themselves.

Have they ever endured a day, week, month, year in which every minute of every hour is governed by the needs and demands of other people? I can guarantee you that they haven’t, because if they had, they would understand that caring takes its toll first and foremost on the carers themselves.

That is why Carers UK is – once again – making a plea to the Government to take its concerns seriously. This new report must be a wake-up call for national and local government ahead of the Treasury’s Spending Review, says Helena Herklots, chief executive of the organisation, which campaigns for the rights of carers nationwide.

Carers UK is calling for improved financial support for carers – citing research which suggests that almost half of all carers are struggling to make ends meet. At the same time though, the organisation wants a much more flexible approach to be taken from employers to allow people to work reduced or variable hours depending on the care needs of their families, without the risk of losing their job.

Paid “care leave” of five to 10 days at a time could be taken as required. Proper legislation would ensure that such security was in place. And also, Carers UK would like to see the business of caring taken much more seriously by the NHS, ensuring that those who look after people are looked after themselves. This could involve support when they need it, and annual health checks.

I wish Ms Herklots luck with her mission. We’ve had report after report and campaign after campaign, but for too long now no one with the power to make any difference has shown any inclination to really care for those who spend their lives caring for other people. They make their contribution in hours and days and weeks and years, and save the country billions of pounds every year. Is it too much to ask for something in return?