Rallying support for an unpaid army

Unpaid carers fulfil a vital role looking after family members or friends who are sick, disabled or who need extra support. Their contribution to the healthcare system is undeniable, but often comes at the expense of their own health and wellbeing. More needs to be done to help individuals in a caring role.

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As a military child, Paul Watson witnessed first hand how his peers often took on a caring role in their families. This could be because a soldier had returned from combat with a mental or physical injury, or simply because of home circumstances.

That is why he is keen that all unpaid carers, and particularly young carers in military families, get the support they need.

‘My stepdad was in the army and my mum was working two or three jobs. I had a much younger brother and spent a lot of time looking after him,’ he says. ‘Anecdotally, I know what it can be like being in a single parent household, and the oldest child will become a carer for the other children.’

Mr Watson, a children’s inpatient mental health nurse at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, works closely with Military Young Carers, an organisation that aims to raise awareness and improve identification of young carers and their needs.

Through this role he has advised the Department of Health’s school nurse and health visiting team on the emotional health issues for children and young people whose families are in the military.

According to NHS England, only one in ten carers are known to their GP practice, meaning the majority could be missing out on crucial support.

Conservative estimates suggest there are around 6.5 million adult carers in the UK, with this figure set to rise to nine million by 2037. Many carers are performing these duties at the expense of their own health, jobs and quality of life.

However, the rights and needs of carers are starting to become more high profile. For example, new legislation to improve conditions for carers in Scotland is going through the Scottish parliament, while south of the border, NHS England has published Commitment to Carers, a document that commits the NHS to doing more to support the millions of people providing unpaid care for their family or other loved ones. When it was published in April last year, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said ‘we need to care for the carers’.

Vital role to play

According to nurse and NHS England experience of care professional lead Paul Jebb, this is something that is taken seriously.

‘Supporting carers is key to our work,’ he says, adding that it cuts across several areas, including children and young people, older people, and joint working between health services and local authorities. There is also work going on to support NHS staff who are carers at home.

Mr Jebb says that nurses have a vital role to play in supporting carers, regardless of the setting they work in.

‘All nurses should understand what a carer is and be able to signpost to relevant bodies for support. They should understand how being a carer can have an effect on people’s health. We want nurses to ask the question: “Do you look after someone else at home?” If the answer is yes, then they should offer support.’

Carers UK chief executive Heléna Herklots agrees. ‘Nurses are in a fantastic position to identify and help carers early on. They can give carers the advice and support they need to care well for their loved ones and look after their own health and wellbeing,’ she says.

‘Not only will carers and their loved ones benefit, but nurses will too – patients will recover quicker and be less likely to be re-admitted to hospital or need to revisit their GP. This in turn will prevent extra costs for the NHS, which it can ill afford.’

Carers: the figures. (Source: Carers UK and NHS England)

Healthy savings

This has rung true at Sussex Community NHS Trust, which has had its own carers’ health team for about two years. Covering West Sussex, the six nurses and one occupational therapist who make up the carer health team visit carers at home and help them find the right support for their needs.

Mike Dixon, one of two full-time members of the team, says the service makes sense in economic and human terms.

‘We know that some carers become ill as a consequence of their caring responsibilities, so they are using health services more than they would otherwise,’ he says. ‘But if they are in hospital, for example, that means the person they are caring for will also need extra care.’

A review of the service this summer found that it had increased the confidence and quality of life of more than 1,000 carers in West Sussex, potentially saving local health services over £2 million a year.

‘Carers, on the whole, are providing an excellent standard of care to their husbands, wives and children,’ adds Mr Dixon. ‘They’re caring for their loved ones, so we need to care for them’.

NHS England’s Commitment to Carers is available at tinyurl.com/qydepax

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