Around 6.5 million people in the UK provide unpaid care by looking after an ill, older or disabled family member, partner or friend.
The amount and type of care they provide varies considerably. A carer might provide a few hours of support a week, for example shopping, collecting medication and taking someone to medical appointments, or they may care around the clock. Too often, caring for someone else has a damaging impact on their health and wellbeing; those caring for 50 hours or more a week are twice as likely to be in bad health as non-carers.
Carers Week is an annual campaign to raise awareness of caring, highlight the challenges carers face and recognise their contribution. This year it runs from June 8-14, and Carers UK has joined with five other major charities – Age UK, Carers Trust, Independent Age, Macmillan Cancer Support and the MS Society – to focus on building carer-friendly communities that support carers to look after their loved ones well and recognise that they are individuals with needs of their own.
Crucial to this is ensuring that health services are carer-friendly, that carers are respected and involved in decision making for their loved ones, and that they get the advice and information they need, both from hospital-based and community services.
Carers UK estimates that the contribution made by carers is worth £119 billion a year. Without this unpaid care, the health service would collapse, yet research carried out for Carers Week shows that while some carers receive excellent support, for others it falls short. This variation needs to be addressed if communities are to be truly carer friendly, and nurses have a unique role to play in helping carers get the support they need.
Health services must recognise carers as expert partners in care, both in policy and in the way health professionals engage with them. They should be involved in conversations about the care of their loved ones, be told how they can expect to be treated, and have access to the information they need.
Those involved in the Carers Week research who experienced good nursing support said it made a huge difference to their lives. One said: ‘I was provided with nurses two nights a week to enable me to get some sleep. During the last few weeks of my father’s life, I had nursing care and support every night. Without them, I would not have coped.’
But it is not just carers who stand to gain from a carer-friendly health system. Carers are often experts in the needs of those they care for, so involving them in the decision-making process can make life easier for the health professional; a nurse benefits from the carer’s valuable knowledge and experience; the person they are caring for has their needs met more safely and fully; and the carer’s life is made easier when they know what is going on.
The Carers Week charities are here to help. Healthcare professionals can refer carers to us for expert information and advice, and we can provide a range of local support services for carers and their families.
We encourage nurses and other health professionals to think about how they can support carers, and how they can work with the Carers Week charities and carers themselves to create a carer-friendly health system.