In the UK there are nearly 7 million unpaid carers supporting family members or friends with disabilities or chronic illnesses, around 1 in 10 of the population. In Australia, an estimated 2.6 million carers provide unpaid care, again around 1 in 10 of the population. In the USA, there are over 43million current carers. Similar trends in unpaid care are being observed globally and the numbers are vast – an estimated 700 million across the world.
For many of us, caring for an elderly parent or a disabled child or sibling, will be one of – maybe the – most important thing we do. Taking care of a loved one, is part of what it is to be human. While unpaid caring can be rewarding, it can have significant costs for individuals as well as hidden societal costs. The increasing care provided by unpaid carers has been linked to higher incidence of poorer mental and physical health. Carers often also suffer increased financial hardship with reduced opportunities to work and the extra costs associated with providing care.
The Coronavirus is having a huge impact on all of us. There are some particular pressures for carers:
- usual help from paid care-workers may be reduced or lost because of sickness
- more families and friends will have to look after sick family members discharged early from hospitals as hospitals race to free up beds and staff to look after coronavirus patients
- similarly if some care homes have to close or reduce the number of residents they can look after because of staff
shortages due to the virus
- some carers are having to cope whilst having mild to moderately severe forms of the virus themselves
- social distancing rules meaning that many carers will lose their usual socialising “safety-valves” (faith groups, gyms, cafes etc).
Carers also have the extra anxiety of worrying about who will look after the person they are caring for, if they are incapacitated and can’t care. Additionally, carers will also be worrying because they know the person they are caring for, may have similar fears. As one elderly lady who has been caring for her now middle-aged son with learning disabilities all his life, told me: “my son is terrified about what might happen to me and is asking who will tell him if I have died. This is really distressing.”
It is vitally important that political leaders organising national responses to the pandemic, remember the caring by family members and friends; and understand that such unpaid caring is crucial for the resilience of health and social care services. As the umbrella organisation Euro-Carers have said:
“Carers are essential to the sustainability of our care systems and ignoring their situation and needs in the context of the current health crisis would amount to no less than a disaster.”
Many carers will be juggling a job and caring as well. In the UK 1:7 of the workforce are working and caring. Crucially for the successful management of the pandemic, that figure rises to 1:5 of the staff of the UK’s National Health Service. In the US over 1:6 of the workforce are also caring.
During this crisis, it is important that employers realise that many of their staff will have added pressures and concerns about the care of loved ones. If an organisation already has policies in place to support working carers, they should be regularly promoting these in virtual team meetings etc. And if they don’t, perhaps this is the time to add carers to Employee Assistance Programmes and the like.