The emotional and financial toll of being an informal carer- Sarah Coles

When I filled out the census form with my husband, and we got to the bit about whether I had any caring responsibilities, he initially clicked ‘no’.

The pressures of being a carer can affect your personal finances

For that, he got one of those hard stares that couples develop in order to save all the time and energy of an actual row.

From his perspective, I work full time; I live two-and-a-half hours from my dad’s house; and he has a full-time live-in carer. From my perspective, I do literally nothing other than work and look after other people.

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Being so far from dad just means that when I go over at the weekend to reassure him, feed him, clip his nails, massage his feet, search for things he’s worried he has lost, and deal with any problems that have arisen during the week, I throw in a five-hour round trip for good measure.

This kind of thing isn’t unusual. It’s by far the most common type of care carried out by the 2.7 million women and 1.8 million men who look after a loved one in the UK. One in three of all informal carers help look after a parent who lives outside their home.

Most commonly they help out for between five and 19 hours a week, and most do this alongside work – with 53 per cent in employment and 36 per cent working full-time. Even my age is typical, because we’re most likely to need to look after someone between the ages of 45 and 75. It’s why about 1.3 million of us simultaneously care for our children and our parents.

Caring for someone is part of loving them, so most wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m also well aware of the fact that given the choice of looking after someone or needing to be looked after ourselves, there’s nobody in the world who would choose the latter. It reminds me every day how incredibly lucky I am to have my health.

However, it takes an enormous toll, both emotionally and financially. If you rely on professional help, you can expect to pay between £15 and £30 an hour, although costs vary enormously between agencies and around the country. If you need a live-in carer, you can expect prices to start at £1,000 a week, although depending on what you need and where you live, you could pay £2,000 or more. It’s very easy to eat through your savings incredibly quickly.

You may be able to get some help from your local council if your loved one passes specific tests, including having a high level of need, limited income, and savings less than £23,250. Alternatively, they may be able to get funding from the NHS. However, I can’t stress enough how high their medical needs have to be in order to qualify for this, so don’t assume you’ll get any help from anywhere until they have been assessed.

If you decide to take on the caring yourself, you may well end up paying a different kind of price, through lost earnings. Women make up the majority of carers, and while most of them work, they are more likely to work part-time. This doesn’t just impact your earning potential, but your promotion prospects too, so even if you eventually return to full-time work, your income will have been damaged for the rest of your career.

And it’s not just salary: you’ll also pay the price in terms of pension contributions. The biggest group of carers are aged 55-64. Typically, at this stage in life, people prioritise saving for retirement, because any children may have left home, so you have more money available to put away. If you move into part-time work, you may miss a key window of opportunity to fund your pension, so you end up carrying the cost of being a carer into your own retirement.

During the pandemic, the pressure on carers has grown. As people have been reluctant to put their parents into residential care, so they have had to step in to provide even more support.

Where this has come on top of children being home from nursery and school, it has meant stretching themselves in several directions at once, so it’s no surprise that some have found it impossible to continue working alongside everything else. Even before the pandemic, one in five carers were unable to work at all.

If this isn’t part of your life now, it’s worth considering whether it’s something you need to plan for in future. 28 per cent of people over the age of 85 need care, so as people live longer, more people will need their family to help. You may think you know who’ll look after your loved ones, but life can change, and not everyone steps up. It means we all need to think carefully about who we might be expected to care for, and how we would manage both emotionally and financially.

It’s not easy, but if we discuss it with our loved ones, we’re more likely to be able to provide them with the help they need. Who knows, you might make it look so easy your other half questions whether you’re a carer at all.

Sarah Coles is a personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown

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