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Comment: Care for the carers

Comment: Care for the carers

7 June marked the beginning of Carers Week this year – a whole seven days dedicated to making caring visible and valued across the UK. I have been an unpaid carer for over a decade now, so I have lived through my fair share of these annual awareness-raising events.

For those of you not so familiar with Carers Week, it generally involves politicians thanking unpaid carers for being the hidden army and unsung heroes of the nation. It also features a number of charities publishing some rather scary statistics to remind carers how dire their lives are.

But most importantly, it’s a week where people from across the country take to social media and share some of the most honest and often harrowing realities of being an unpaid carer.

At the end of Carers Week, however, the messages of gratitude usually come to a rather abrupt end – and nothing fundamentally changes for the 1.1 million people in Scotland who provide unpaid care to a loved one.

In many ways, Carers Week this year was no different to any of the previous years – and yet, it absolutely should have been. 

What carers needed this year, more than ever, was less of the rhetoric and more action.

Carers needed practical support to deal with the extra demands placed on them during the pandemic and a real commitment to reform the deeply flawed social care and welfare systems in this country.

Instead, what we got was local councils across the country thanking unpaid carers for their ‘heroic’ efforts whilst simultaneously reducing or cutting the care budgets for our loved ones. We saw politicians sharing their pledges of support for unpaid carers whilst continuing to vote for further cuts in benefits and services for disabled people. The hypocrisy and gaslighting from some of those in positions of power was just truly off the scale this year.

Last year, when the country first went into lockdown, many of the services for disabled children and adults, and for older people, shut down or were reduced significantly. There was no contingency or back up, and in many instances unpaid carers were left to pick up the pieces with no or very little additional support. For many carers the increased demand on their caring role came at a very heavy cost to their own health and wellbeing.

What carers needed this year, instead of gratitude, was for politicians to support an increase in the income threshold for carers allowance

More than a year on, and despite the easing of restrictions across the country, many of these vital services for disabled and older people remain closed. Unpaid carers are now the largest care workforce in Scotland and yet continue to remain invisible and ignored by many of the policy and decision-makers across the country.

Despite some excellent pieces of legislation over the years to support unpaid carers in Scotland, the majority of unpaid carers are unable to take a regular break from their caring role. They are unable to access any meaningful support unless they are in actual crisis, and replacement care is currently non-existent. Carers don’t want to be told that they are the unsung heroes of the nation – what they do want is for local and national governments to address why there have been consistent failures to implement much of the legislation and policies for carers in this country.

We know that many unpaid carers are at increased risk of poverty or financial hardship, and yet so many of us are ineligible for any financial assistance with our caring roles. Currently anyone earning more than £128 per week, or studying more than 21 hours per week, or in receipt of a state pension (or other income-related benefit) is excluded from claiming carers allowance – that’s approximately 90 per cent of the unpaid carer population. Unfortunately, warm words and praise don’t pay our bills.

What carers needed this year, instead of gratitude, was for politicians to support an increase in the income threshold for carers allowance, to get rid of the rule which prohibits students from claiming carers allowance and to put in place some form of carer recognition payment for carers in receipt of a state pension (or other income-related benefits).

None of us take on a caring role for the thanks or gratitude. Many of us fall into the role because of love or obligation to the person we are caring for. But neither love nor obligation can ever sustain a caring role.

Without a strong network of support, a regular source of income, accessible homes and services, and the ability to take a regular break from caring, very few us can ever sustain a caring role in the long term.

So as another Carers Week comes to an end, we perhaps have some choices to reflect on. We can either keep pushing unpaid carers to share their harrowing and traumatic experiences and to evoke sympathy and pity under the guise of raising awareness. Or we can start doing more to hold our policy and decision-makers to account.

And we can decide that it’s time to stop with the gratitude and to finally start taking some action.

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