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23 June 2016

Who cares for the carers? The forgotten people our society relies on everyday

Both carers and care workers need more support. 

By David Barker

There are currently 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK. Most of us, at some point in our lives, will care for someone, most likely a friend, neighbour, or family member. We will do anything from household chores, taking them shopping, and assisting with paperwork, to personal care: helping them to wash, dress, and get in and out of bed. Although this may be brief, both in the length of time spent caring and the hours put in each day, for many it’s a commitment lasting for much of their lives.

Caring can provide the carer with a deep sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and even new skills. And yet, according to Carers Week, 75per cent of carers don’t feel their caring role is understood or valued by their community.

Carers Week is an annual campaign to raise awareness of carers and caring: to recognise both the challenges they face and the contribution they make. This year, Carers Week lasted from Monday 6 June to Sunday 12 June, and focused on building carer-friendly communities. This was supported by seven key charities: Age UK, Carers UK, Carers Trust, Independence Age, Macmillan Cancer Support, the MS Society, and the MND Association.

I spoke with Barbara Keeley, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Older People, Social Care and Carers, about what she’s did for Carers Week. Her focus fell predominantly on the unpaid, voluntary side of care, rather than care workers, although it has to be said that there is so much interaction between the two groups that it’s hard to talk about one without the other.

At one point, I used “carer” and “care worker” interchangeably, and Barbara stopped to correct me. She said people feel quite strongly about this distinction. A woman she met last week was putting in 100 hours a week when caring for her husband, and wanted to be known as a “carer” to differentiate herself and those who volunteer their time from those who do this professionally.

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“Many carers have to battle to get the support they need for the person they care for, and for themselves”, Barbara said. “They should not have to do this. They should be supported locally and nationally in their caring role”. She tries to do this in Westminster through debates and meetings, recently focusing on specific issues, such end of life care for children, young people, and LGBT people.

Who cares for the carers?

In Barbara’s view, the biggest challenges for carers are; lack of recognition, not being listened to or considered when decisions are made, and financial hardship. It’s difficult for many carers to make ends meet, and 1.2 million are in poverty.

Lack of support from NHS and social care services has exacerbated this, with carers having to wait for assessments of their own needs. “NHS bodies should have a duty to identify carers”, Barbara says. “If this is done early enough, carers are more likely to get access to the support they need. Social care is chronically underfunded at a time when the population of older people with complex care needs is growing. More people are providing unpaid care for more hours than ever before”.

There’s also the issue of training: many carers are providing hours of support every day to someone with a complex illness, like dementia, without having been taught or prepared for the challenges this presents. On a positive note, the experience they gain is often so great that Barbara believes many carers should be regarded as experts.

But, I asked her, what would a Labour government do to help? Barbara advocates a fairer funding settlement for local authorities to pay for adult social care, and for carers to have flexible working policies, better pay, and paid leave. As she points out, this all hinges on being identified as a carer, as without this, it’s significantly harder to find and receive the support they need. 

She, an MP in Greater Manchester, references how the integration of NHS services in that area will mean more money flowing around, but, as is the case now, social care could remain in a black hole. There’s also the impact on mental health, which Barbara notes affects younger carers in a big way, but is yet to be addressed in any meaningful way. 

As Barbara is quick to point out, paid and unpaid carers interact frequently. And it’s reassuring for one to know the other is able to provide a high quality standard of care, so improved training and conditions for one benefits the other.

To mark Carers Week, Barbara has met with older people who are also carers for loved ones. On Friday 10 June, after we spoke, Barbara was going to meet with young carers. Other Labour MPs are getting involved too. Chris Leslie, MP for Nottingham East, spent the day shadowing a homecare worker, following her as she went from house to house to provide support. Lilian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, and a former Unison worker, has put videos on social media to voice support for carers, and will be visiting a care home next Friday. Plenty of others used this week as an opportunity to learn more about care in their constituency. Given Labour’s ink with trade unions, many MPs are also particularly concerned about working conditions for paid care workers.

Lack of support

I spoke with Sean Kelly-Walsh, a local organiser for Unison and former parliamentary candidate, to better understand the paid side of care. Unison East Midlands hired him and two others back in October to help them locate, represent, and recruit homecare workers, and campaign in order to achieve this. As with any trade union, Unison wants to recruit as many workers as possible to secure better working conditions for them all. Although Carers Week focuses on unpaid carers, it presents Unison with an ideal opportunity to achieve these goals, and emphasise the importance of paid care workers. It could be argued that Unison are pulling focus away from the core purpose of Carers Week, but Sean tells me Unison are offering information to voluntary carers about the support they can get too. 

Between the government slashing the social care budget and increased privatisation, Sean describes homecare workers as, “suffering cuts upon cuts”, but their struggles run deeper than this. “They do the work of a nurse”, Sean said, “but get about a fifth of the respect and wages”.

He sees the biggest challenges as a lack of training opportunities and support for all carers, within the context of underfunding, which has resulted in high turnover of paid staff. “It’s one of those jobs where, whether you’re paid or unpaid, you’ve got to love it; you’ve got to love looking after people”, he says. “People have the passion, but they’re not being adequately supported by the government”.

Another major problem is unpaid travel time and expenses. If someone is working a 15-minute session, they, inevitably, will spend more time traveling than working, and only get paid for those 15 minutes spent with the client. Longer minimum slots would help, but wouldn’t be enough to alleviate the strain on their own. Barbara had also mentioned wanting to put an end to the 15-minute long care visits, and before the 2015 election, Labour pledged to end this practice.

“Getting people to join a trade union is crucial”, Sean said. He often hears stories of people or their friends and family being exploited through overwork. Unison are trying to get workers a better deal by looking at the underlying national issue that homecare providers do not pay their staff for adequately or provide training opportunities.

As Barbara, Sean, and everyone else I’ve spoken to on this issue has said, we have to make sure the people who care for the people we love are also cared for. Unless carers are given more support, and care workers are given better working conditions, they with both struggle to cope with the growing demand for care in our country. As it stands, the government simply aren’t doing enough. 

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