Supporting carers is not just right, it’s rational

by Peter Watt

This week is “carers week“, when the fantastic contribution and role played by the millions of carers in the UK is celebrated.  It is all very big, or even good, society.  The numbers of those with a caring role is on the increase.  But there is one particular group of carers whose numbers are increasing fast, and that is older carers who care for very old relatives. The reasons for the increase are clear. According to the ONS, the fastest population increase has been in the number of those aged 85 and over, the “oldest old”. In 1984, there were around 660,000 people in the UK aged 85 and over. Since then the numbers have more than doubled reaching 1.4 million in 2009. By 2034 the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to be 2.5 times larger than in 2009, reaching 3.5 million and accounting for 5 per cent of the total population. This is, of course, a fantastic success story with people living longer and living healthier for longer. But it also means that there are many older people who are themselves caring for very old and frail relatives.

The statistics are not even half the story. Behind them are hundreds of thousands of human stories of love and care that are a source of pride and inspiration. But they should also be a source of shame that as a society we are still allowing people to struggle so appallingly. Take Mrs M who is 80 and cares for her husband, Mr M, who is 87.

They have been married for forty years and until Mr M was diagnosed with dementia 6 years ago they had plans to travel in their retirement. He was once a pre-eminent science lecturer and it has been difficult for Mrs M to adjust to the changes in Mr M’s behaviour. On top of all of this, Mrs M has arthritis and has been suffering from exhaustion due to her caring role. She loves her husband but is struggling to support him – she will not give in willingly though.

She is not alone in this. It has been reported that 75% of carers have suffered with health issues as a result of their caring role. Unfortunately, reductions in the budgets in Mrs M’s London borough mean that her husband has had his needs reassessed by the local authority. Because it is not seen as a “critical” need to go to a day centre, Mr M will no longer have his one day a week outing.  This break gave Mrs M three hours of time to take care of paper work, do the shop, and possibly attend GP appointments for her arthritis.

The problem is that Mrs M’s own health is deteriorating because of her arthritis and the decreasing amount of support she gets from her local council. Losing just three hours a week in respite means that pretty soon Mrs M won’t be able to take care of her own needs. This could, and in fact often does, lead to a crisis where two people end up very ill and without support.

If Mrs M couldn’t care for her husband, then the state would have to step in. And that costs. In fact, the replacement value of a carer is £18 an hour. With an estimated 6,440,713 carers in the UK,  people like Mrs M, pound for pound, save the UK economy £119 billion per year by caring for a partner or family member. Even if Mrs M only cared for her husband five hours a day, instead of her usual 12 (including being woken up each night), she would have saved the economy £32,850.00 a year. That is for five hours a day. The fact is, most carers report that they care for someone for over 50 hours a week, saving the economy, on average, £52,560.00 a year per carer.

According to carers week:

  • 76% of carers are worse off financially since taking on their caring responsibilities;
  • 75% of carers have suffered with health issues as a result of caring;
  • 49% of carers have a disability, condition or illness themselves;
  • 48% have been a carer for more than 10 years;
  • 78% are female.

So carers are a massive and undervalued resource. They save us all money and provide the ultimate welfare state to their loved ones. Successive governments’ track record in supporting this group is pretty poor – none of us has much to be proud of. But as we look at making savings in the public purse, we should take care that we don’t make the situation even more difficult. The long term cost to the taxpayer would be much more than the savings. The human cost would be incalculable.

Remember that in the future Mr and Mrs M could be you.

Peter Watt is the chief executive of counsel and care, a national charity supporting older people, their family and carers.  He is also former general secretary of the Labour party.

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13 Responses to “Supporting carers is not just right, it’s rational”

  1. JW says:

    Outstanding piece.

  2. Robert says:

    I of course was a carer at age ten, my education ended at ten years of age I had little schooling after this due to looking after my mother.

    Then in 1990 while in work I was crippled by a massive accident so my wife became my carer she has spina bifida.

    The question is of course why now do they put this up, why not when labour were in power, or is it that both labour and the Tories have no interest at all.

    Blair made sounds but did little, and then came out with carers should care and work.

    fine pay carers more you have a better chance under the Tories then you did under the new labour regime, of course brown was just an idiot who had no idea at all .

    Carers are needed but in this world they are care in the community another great idea of New labour.

  3. Peter Watt says:

    Robert – I agree that Labour let down Carers.

  4. Jane says:

    Like others, my childhood was spent caring for my younger siblings and in later life grandparents and parents. I saw this as my duty as a family member and have never called on help from the State. Day centres or respite care were unheard of and certainly not as readily available in rural communities. i shoudl think that the neaerst one to my home is some 30 miles away in the nearest major connurbation.

    Now I am retired and look after my younger disabled widowed sister, elderly neighbours, and ill husband. I do not expect anything from anyone and loathe the thought of putting a cost on my family or neighbourly responsibilities. In other countries it is expected that families will care for relatives and not the State’s responsibility. Those are the values I was brought up with and I am now trying to remember when this notion of caring for loved ones is saving the State money. Somehow, I feel it has only been the case in the last decade when a culture was permitted and encouraged that the State was allowed to permeate every area of our lives and would provide. Interest groups have developed claiming grandparents should be paid for looking after grandchildren, carers (generally in metropolitan areas) should be recognised monetarily, people who have retired abroad should have the same welfare benefits and systems that we have etc etc etc. The world is certainly going mad and if we met every interest groups demands we would have to pay 60% tax on our income.

    Yes the State has to help those who are unable to help themselves. I do not need to be recognised or the state to value me as a carer or someone who saves the taxpayer (myself included) money. Caring for people around you is being part of a family and community and being valued by them is more important than some recognition by a charity or the state. It is a part of being human. Somehow I feel denigrated by having all these statistics of deprivation quoted at me. Please let me retain my dignity and not feel somehow that I am being treated abysmally – that is what I am left with after reading this article. I am quite sure this was not the intention as you are (from reading your book) a sensitive and reasonable man.

  5. AnneJGP says:

    I was fortunate to be able to care for my mother at home until one week before she died, when she had to go into hospital; then to be able to care for my father until he died at home nearly 10 years later. I had it easy compared to most carers, believe me.

    The Carer’s Allowance was something like £56 per week, if you’re spending a minimum of 35 hours a week caring and have no other benefits. That’s a maximum rate of £1-60 per hour. How on earth is anyone supposed to live on that? The assumption must be that the carer is living off their dependent in some fashion. (I was the householder & my parents came to live with me in their later years.)

    I was able to keep working until less than 6 months before my father died, by repeatedly reducing my hours. It’s enormously stressful being at work when you’re worrying about what’s happening at home. I’d like to encourage employers and managers of carers to allow them to work from home wherever practical.

    There were instances where a decision on hospitalising the dependent comes down on the side of not doing so, because the “working” carer is off sick from work and is therefore available to cope with the sicker-than-usual dependent.

    But what are we going to do, now? The time for putting welfare & benefits on a stable footing is long gone. There’s no money left, and local councils are all too frequently inclined to cut front line services to prove a political point.

    The political point-scoring always, but always, comes first.

  6. Peter Watt says:

    Jane, thanks for your response. I 100% agree with what you day about family, resoonsiblity and care. I also agree that the state should not just step in as this can undermine the caring role. As a family we cared for my Dad at home before he died, we did it because we loved him and it was our job! But the point I am trying to make is that there are times when a small amount of help means that a Carer can continue caring when otherwise the situation might become unsustainable. The costings I quote are illustrative of the value of Carers, not an indication of how much should be spent by the state to replace Carers.


  7. I have been a Carer throughout my daughter’s life who is now 23 years of age. I missed so much as did my other two children who helped me look after the youngest whilst I went to work. They missed special times because I was always too exhausted to spend time with them. Giving priority to the youngest that needed more help and help did not come my way from anyone except my own children.

    I am grateful by the fact that as they got older they understood that had they been the child with the disability I would have done the same for them. More help should be given throughout early years to parents. That does not mean t is jsut about giving them extra money but actual help for that child to continue to develop.

    That does not mean the making of another assessment without action. Too many people make assessments without any actual help going to the Carer or the Disabled Child. My daughter had a moderate disability and I know my life has been hard and many years of tears. I had to do all the work to help my daughter and this should not have been so. The first help I encountered was an Occupational therapist in 2006 who watched my daughter chop vegetables. My daughter was born in 1987. I waited a long time for help. I know my life too has been easier then other Carers who I respect and admire for their courage and strength.

    I gave up work several years ago as I was left with little choices and exhaustion trying to combine work and caring.

    What government has to look at is what services can be improved for young disabled. If these services are looked at, many Carers with younger children would be able to combine Caring and Working. There is so called help but not necessarily the right kind of help that works for that child. Each child has a different disability and different needs.

    Everyone should be treated as an individual and a combined Health, Social and Educational plan made that has to continue throughout that individual life. Educational help should continue all the time that individual needs it through life. Problems with what is currently available are what is causing problems as we see many failures and few successes as many are unemployed. Resulting in young disabled in particular those with a learning disability to feel helpless when we should be ensuring a life of aspirations and hope.

    Problems should be addressed in early years but intensively not as they have been. The long term results will bring about benefits to that Child and the way they cope with their own disability. Resulting in less pressure and stress on Carers and preparing that child for an independent life or in Care as sometimes the case maybe. I can only put my own point of view and I know there are many Carers looking after someone 24 hours which needs to be treated differently. For younger disabled there is a chance to change their lives and to change the lives of future Carers now. Not when they are ill and can not continue to cope any longer. Not when a child has mental health because of lack of hope. Only then does the media cover the stories. Yet Carers live those moments daily sometimes for many many many years as I have.

    It seems Carers voices are not heard until emergency happens. Put yourself in Carers position for one moment and consider their lives and dedication they give for such little reward. It is time local Council spent the money that has been allocated for Carers to give them a life and help they deserve for themselves and who they care for.
    Better plans need to be made not cuts.

  8. AmberStar says:

    @ Peter Watt

    Robert – I agree that Labour let down Carers.
    Which Uk government has ever done more than Labour for the disabled & their carers?

    Which other Party had a leadership candidate who made care of the elderly a central issue in their leadership campaign? Andy Burnham didn’t win but he raised the profile of care for the elderly as an issue within the Party.

    So how did Labour ‘let carers down’? By failing to win the 2010 election? If that’s your criteria, we let a lot of people down – but surely the voters have to take some responsibility too… the Tories made no secret of the fact that they’d cut anything that didn’t have powerful, private or third sector interests lobbying for it.

    Labour did not ‘let carers down’. I say again, Labour did more for them than any other government before or since.

  9. Peter Watt says:

    AmberStar stop being so defensive! I didn’t say Labour did nothing. But clearly there’s more to do and if you’re a Carer it would be reasonable to feel that not enough was done.

  10. AmberStar says:

    @ Peter Watt

    It’s a tough job, defending the Labour Party, but somebody has to do it.

  11. Henrik says:

    @AmberStar: defending the Labour Party – which is a perfectly sensible and rational thing to do, if you happen to be that way inclined – is very much more effective if it’s done sensibly and pragmatically, without necessarily getting twitchy and oversensitive about indefensible positions. Relax; Labour were crap in government, but then so are most parties – it’s not to be wondered at, politicians tend not to have any experience at all at actually running things, taking responsibility or being accountable for their actions – all the sort of stuff that we little people outside the charmed bubble of politics take for granted.

    Even I would admit that Labour occasionally got things spectacularly right and that the other side is perfectly capable of taking aim and shooting itself squarely in the foot.

  12. AmberStar says:

    @ Peter Watt

    You’ve probably read this already – but if you haven’t, you might find it interesting.

    Sunderland’s [Labour] Council seem to have found a way to make people caring/ being cared for feel less isolated & more in touch with the support that’s available to them.

    Is this something you consider to be a worthwhile initiative? Could you use your standing within the Party to confirm that this works well & is cost effective? And, if you conclude that it does & is, maybe use your influence to get all Labour Councils to consider a similar initiative.

  13. Vanessa says:

    Round here you have a choice of just parties’ canidates in most elections: Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem. Basically that means Labour or coalition. Labour towards the end were making a right mess of things (a term I use is they became ‘over-cooked’- something that appears tp happen to those who have been in power or very close to the top for too long like meal becomes a burnt mess if its cooked too long). Gordon Brown had spent too long living in Downing Street and close to the top in Government to be a fresh start for Labour- he was already over-cooked as I put it. Whilst Labour did not do all it could have done for Carers at least it did not try to destroy carers lives as a side effect of trying to kick as many disabled off of all forms of disability benefits as they can get away with (I am refering to the replacement of DLA with PIPs and the nature of the assessment for PIPs). Not making things better is preferable to destruction of carers finances and trying to force them into full time paid work they haven’t time for because they are caring for somone who no longer counts as disabled. That means if I am to vote it has to be Labour- they are just not quite as bad as the coalition.

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