Penalise the carers; then who cares?

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By Dr Joy Fillingham, Service User and Carer Involvement Social Work Programmes
School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham

As a former carer, hearing how the government are focusing so closely on penalising carers undertaking additional work or study, in relation to their responsibilities, frustrates me in the extreme.

Without informal carers, our social care system would collapse and could not deal with either the current need or the future expected requirements in terms of care. Carers often devote years of their lives to caring for loved one(s) and can find themselves unable to rebuild their own future or careers when the caring ends.

Therefore, to penalise people for trying to maintain their skills, knowledge and capacity to work, study and engage with people outside the caring role, appears short-sighted and draconian. It is as if carers are needed, but are not permitted, to have any autonomy or life outside the one role. This disregards the skills of many carers and their right for freedom, control and sense of themselves outside of the caring role – in the long term this will impact on the wellbeing of the carer, and quite often the people they are caring for.

The costs of being a carer can be high; though the current rate of carers allowance each week is £66.15. This, for many people, is a very limited budget. However, the limitations about work or study as a carer are restrictive in the extreme.

Penalising carers, therefore, is incredibly short-sighted. It fails to recognise the importance and impact that informal care has in shaping life in the UK for a significant and growing number of people. Governments rely upon the affective relationship carers have for the people they care for, to maintain control on costs and carers.

Unless there is established recognition and respect for carers, it is possible to see a time when service users may be isolated, or forced into residential care and carers demoralised. Without the sacrifice of many individual carers, our system could collapse: the costs of the state trying to care for all service users requiring support would be immense.

We need to value our carers rather than scrutinise them; without them, the future would be bleak indeed. What successive governments have done is fail to recognise either the stresses or the skills which carers often amass. So what could be done?

  • Recognition of the impacts, both negative and positive, which caring has on an individual, including within formal assessments. This could be linked to the service users’ assessments, so the two are not seen in isolation.
  • Consistent support throughout the country via funded third sector agencies. Some areas currently are only able to offer online or ‘virtual support’; for some carers, this is not accessible.
  • For carers of working age, offer options regarding working and study
    – Which can consider the aggregate income of a carer; rather than on a weekly basis.
    – Which can be flexible in terms of study; identifying whether the required hours of care can effectively be undertaken alongside education.

For both working and older carers, continued information and options are vital. The complexity of the systems which many carers are expected to negotiate often limits their opportunities. Carers need to be recognised as a valued asset, rather than scrutinised and limited. Informal care is often unrecognised and under-valued; offering such carers their own time, time to focus upon their wishes and wellbeing needs to be promoted and facilitated rather than penalised.

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