Three practical ways we can improve the lives of Britain’s carers

How can we help the army of carers? Photograph © Honza Soukup on Flickr
How can we help the army of carers? Photograph © Honza Soukup on Flickr

Julie Wrigley considers the human cost of being a carer – and identifies practical ways we can make a difference.

Deeply satisfying, hugely frustrating, relentless and exhausting: just some of the experiences of Britain’s carers.

They are the country’s unseen army. Nearly seven million people are looking after spouses, partners, parents or children, according to current estimates. Some are only children themselves.

And any one of us could be recruited to this taskforce – three in five British people can expect to be carers over their lifetime.

The impact

Poor health

Looking after a loved one can be bad for your health.

Research we have conducted over the years indicates that taking on caring responsibilities has a significant negative impact on someone’s overall wellbeing and on mental health.

Carers have told us that they feel isolated from the general population.

Our experience on other studies has also shown us that caring can lead to higher death rates in carers.

Money worries

We have spoken to carers looking after adult children with multiple needs who try to hold down a job, perhaps a night shift, on top of caring full-time through the day.

When this becomes impossible, they survive on a much reduced income.

Some carers ration how many times a week they eat breakfast. Others visit public swimming baths to wash because they have no hot water at home.

Red tape

There is help out there, but many carers struggle to navigate the health, social care and voluntary sectors to find out what’s available.

What we can do now

Policy responses have included the introduction of Carers’ Assessments and moves towards personalisation, integrated care and co-production of services.

But what more can we do at the human level?

How can we help carers replenish themselves so that they can carry on giving care to their loved ones?

The single biggest thing we can do now to care for carers is to end their isolation.

Social contact is vital. Some carers relish meeting others in the same situation to talk over their concerns.

Our research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that conversations about loneliness helped to widen awareness that loneliness can affect everybody – and resulted in people feeling less lonely.

We have found that strong social networks and taking part in activities or groups – leisure, sports, education or helping others – can foster positive mental health, even in the face of stress.

Three ways to make this happen

1. Create People’s Centres

Some carers have told us they wish there were drop-in facilities where they and their loved one could call in spontaneously for company, activity and respite.

Children’s Centres have achieved this for parents with young children. We should expand their role and rename them People’s Centres – a place where carers and others could go who need company and interesting things to do.

2. Involve all the generations

A multi-generational model, with a positive, upbeat approach, has many advantages.

In a joint report Age UK and ILC (International Longevity Centre UK) addressed this idea in relation to our ageing population:

“There is not enough emphasis on fun and playfulness for older people. Communities need to work for all ages and cannot segregate the needs of different groups.”

Getting Our Communities Ready for Ageing

Germany is pioneering the Mehrgenerationenhaus, or multi-generation house.

Here you’ll find a nursery, kindergarten and sitting room, plus a place for young families, older people and anyone in between to drop in for coffee and advice.

The result? Older adults read to children and help with childcare out to relieve exhausted parents. People with dementia sing and play games, sometimes joined by the children.

Teenagers share their expertise with computers and mobile phones.

An inclusive approach could help us all, but carers most of all.

3. Turn the tables

Everybody has strengths and resources, whether carer or cared for. There could be great benefits if everyone had the chance to contribute and to be valued.

We should look for opportunities to turn the tables, so that the carer is looked after and the person usually cared for can make use of the skills they have – maybe by taking part in group leisure activities or sharing their skills with others.

Examples will be personal but could be baking, gardening, giving a massage, painting or making music.

These are just three practical ways we can care for the carers.