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‘The house is on fire’ – why improving carer support must be top of the next government’s priorities 

I have the privilege of leading Carers in Bedfordshire, an organisation on the frontline of supporting unpaid carers. But with that, I also have an unfiltered view of the immense pressures they face and the haunting fact that things are as bad as they have been for a long time.  

I can point to countless statistics that tell you that this is the worst it has been. Here’s just a few: 

  • The number of carers able to access respite through the local authority is lower than it was 10 years ago 
  • Carers’ physical and mental health is at its lowest point since we began recording it 
  • Over 104,000 carers receiving Carer’s Allowance are using food banks 
  • Demand on our services has doubled in just four years  

The house is on fire, and it’s been on fire for a while now.  

Yet, if you peer through the flames to look at party manifestos, the promises and the sentiment, carers largely seem to be forgotten. 

What do carers need?  

It’s fairly simple – to not be pushed into poverty because they care for a loved one, to be able to take a break and to be recognised in their caring role.  

Covid-19 and the cost of living have pushed carers over the edge. In Bedfordshire we are seeing more requests for financial help and mental health services than ever before. Our latest carer survey puts their physical, emotional and financial health at the worst place it has ever been.  

Consider Jane, a single mother caring for her autistic son while working part-time. The cost-of-living crisis has plunged her into financial instability. Despite her best efforts, she struggles financially, often skipping meals to ensure her son is fed.  

Then there's Tom, a middle-aged man caring for his elderly father with dementia. Tom's own health is deteriorating under the constant pressure, leading to severe burnout. He rarely sleeps and has no time for social activities, resulting in isolation and depression.  

We support thousands of carers like Jane and Tom though a range of services. We provide grants for carers to enhance their wellbeing, helping someone like Jane afford a season ticket to the zoo for her and her son. Our benefits advice service guides carers like Tom on how to manage his finances more effectively and be prepared for financial decisions he will need to take in the future. Treatments and wellbeing support give carers the opportunity to talk through the immense stress and emotional strain they face daily.  

Whilst our team of staff and volunteers work tirelessly to help carers stay on their feet through these and other services, we cannot keep pace with growing demand. Yet we cannot afford not to support them. If Jane and Tom gave up their caring role, the cost to the state would be significant.  

So, where do we go from here?  

It’s easy to look at the government to say they need to do more - they do of course. But let’s be realistic, with what?  

Those that will have their hands on the purse strings will face difficult choices, demands coming from every corner and many people suffering.  

But the truth is, if the next government has the same attitude and approach to tackling these issues, then we will all fail. Applying temporary fixes to deep-rooted system failures is not enough. We need a political shift in how we, as a country, value the work carers do. 

Can we expect radical thinking from politicians?  

Election cycles and the nature of our political system makes it difficult to afford radical action so let’s temper those aspirations. However, if you want to know how to do more with less, how to tackle those complex and challenging issues then look at your voluntary, community and social enterprise sector. Yes us, over here, neglected for years but still ploughing away, refusing to die and right in the thick of it.  

It’s staggering to me that we are still here really. There’s been years of services being pitted against each other for resources, staff who are desperately underpaid and a firm closed door to those important discussions at a political level. We've been kept in the dark and locked out of vital discussions. This takes its toll – burnout in our sector is a real issue and it’s a symptom of a system that takes us for granted.  

Right, that’s a lot of moaning, so here’s our message to whoever forms the next government. 

We have some big problems on our hands, not least our broken social care system. Supporting unpaid carers and the sector that supports carers should be at the top of that list. If you think a strike within the NHS risks lives just imagine if five million carers walked out of their role for 10 days. 

With an aging population the same old tools won’t work. We need bold and innovative solutions to ensure carers can continue their vital work without sacrificing their own health. Don’t forget the ace you have up your sleeve, a voluntary sector that can step in and step up if you let it. We’re in this together.  

 

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