The pandemic has been extremely tough for unpaid carers.
The charity Carers UK warns that a huge number are close to breaking point, burned out by months of looking after a family member or friend, and isolated by lockdown.
It estimates that every day in the UK, 600 people give up work to care for an older or disabled relative, and 74 per cent told the charity that they are exhausted, having cared around the clock, and do not know how they can continue without time off.
So to mark this Carers Week, running from June 7 to 13, six charities, including Carers UK, Age UK, Carers Trust, and Rethink Mental Illness, are calling for unpaid care to be made visible and valued, long beyond Covid-19.
“Unpaid carers have sacrificed their physical and mental health taking on many more hours during the pandemic,” says Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK, which estimates that at the beginning of lockdown an additional 4.5 million people became carers in a matter of weeks, on top of an existing nine million who were caring before 2020.
“Carers lost, on average, 25 hours of support a month they previously had from services or family and friends before the pandemic.
“Without the right support, the stress and challenges of the last year could lead to far more carers breaking down. It is essential that the government ensures that those providing upwards of 50 hours of care each week get a funded break.
“Unpaid carers need hope and support in the future and they must be at the heart of the government’s plans for social care reform.”
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One of the challenges is that many fly under the radar, often not realising that they are classified as a carer. But that can deny them access to financial help and employment rights.
For many people, looking after an ill, older or disabled loved one doesn’t have a name, it is “just something you do”.
But if you do not see yourself as a carer, then you are unlikely to consider asking for a carer’s assessment, applying for carer’s allowance, or seeking advice from others who find themselves in similar circumstances.
Charities define a carer as someone who provides unpaid support to a family member or friend who has a disability, illness, mental health condition or who needs extra help as they grow older.
For some, taking on a caring role can be sudden: someone in your family has an accident or your child is born with a disability. For others, caring responsibilities can grow gradually over time: your parents can’t manage on their own any longer or your partner’s mental or physical health gradually worsens.
The amount and type of support that carers provide varies considerably. It can range from a few hours a week, such as picking up prescriptions and preparing meals, to providing emotional support or personal care day and night. But there is help available.
Check that you are claiming all the benefits to which you are entitled. Although there are millions of unpaid carers, only 1.3 million receive carer’s allowance, according to the Department for Work and Pensions.
Carer’s allowance has been criticised for being insultingly low, at just £67.60 a week for the year 2021-22, but it is available to anyone who spends at least 35 hours a week caring for someone, such as helping them with cooking, or shopping, or taking them to medical appointments, and includes caring remotely – you do not have to live with the person you care for. You must however earn no more than £128 a week after tax and national insurance.
In Scotland, if you are receiving carer’s allowance you are also eligible for an extra payment – a carer’s allowance supplement, £231.40 paid twice a year in June and December. You may also qualify for extra universal credit if you are a carer.
Carers UK has an online tool, Upfront. It’s especially useful if you are new to caring and will guide you through all the financial help that’s out there and how to apply.
Many charities and organisations offer grants too, money that does not have to be paid back.
From this month any carer who is registered with a carers trust network partner (you can find a network partner at carers.org or by calling 0300 772 9600) is eligible for the new Princess Royal Respite Fund for Carers, set up to mark Princess Anne’s 70th birthday, and offering financial help for carers to have a break from their caring duties.
The charity Turn2Us has a very helpful tool that will help you search all grants that you might be able to take advantage of at grants-search.turn2us.org.uk.
Turn2us also has its own response fund that supports those who have had a life-changing event in the past 12 months which has left them in financial hardship.
The site disability-grants.org lists options for those with disabilities and their families and carers.
Some industries offer grant support to those who work or had a career with them in the past. For example, the civil service has The Charity for Civil Servants with lots of online information and help aimed at those looking after someone else.
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Carers are often entitled to free entry to attractions or money off businesses and services, so do check.
The National Trust, for example, offers an Essential Companion card where you can bring one or two carers with you free of charge.
The CEA Card gives a free ticket to the companion of any disabled cinema goer. You may also be entitled to money off your council tax or TV licence – for example, if you are living with someone who is registered blind. Check out carersmart.org for more offers.
Rights to flexible work
If you are working you have rights to a “reasonable” amount of time off, unpaid, to care for a dependant in an emergency.
Carers UK would like to see more employers introduce formal policies and practices that support the increasing number of staff juggling their job with a caring role, such as paid carer’s leave and flexible working from day one of starting a job.
As it is, you are legally entitled to request flexible working, which could include working from home, working compressed hours or having time off to help a relative with doctor’s appointments. You have to have worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks before you can request it, however, and unfortunately your employer is allowed to turn you down, though they must give your request adequate consideration and come up with a reasonable reason as to why it has been rejected.
These are your statutory rights but your employer may have their own more generous policy, so always ask.
Help and support for your own mental health
Tell your GP you are a carer, so they can support you with your own health and signpost you to local support, such as your local carer’s network.
You can connect with other carers via the We Care Campaign, a grassroots volunteer-led campaign run by unpaid carers and those who support them, which aims to get a better deal for all unpaid carers in the UK. Visit wecarecampaign.tilda.ws.
Carers UK has an online forum at carersuk.org/forum, and a helpline on 0808 808 7777.
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