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Comment: Life should go on after caring stops

Helping HandsCarers: is there life after care-giving? Have you or anyone you know, ever been an unpaid carer? Three in every five people will be carers at some point in their lives so it is likely that you will know someone who is or has been a carer.

The number of carers in the UK is estimated to be around 6.5 million.

In Scotland, there are about 650,000 unpaid carers providing care and support to family members, partners, friends and neighbours who are affected by ill health, frailty or disability. These numbers are projected to rise over the next 20 years, in response to an aging population and fewer social services.

Carers face challenges to their health, wellbeing and quality of life simply because of the role they have taken on.

They are more likely to be in poor health than their peers who do not have caring responsibilities. In a recent survey, 83 per cent of carers in Scotland said that caring had a negative effect on their physical health and 65 per cent said that it had a negative impact on their mental health.

Half of working-age carers reported living in a household with no-one in paid work while 170,000 said they gave up paid employment to care for someone.

This situation has serious consequences for individual and household finances. Not only are carers more likely to be in poor health than their peers, but they also experience a loss of income, savings and benefits at a time when food and fuel bills are increasing.

The contribution of carers is being increasingly recognised in both government policy and professional practice. In a recent public display of support for carers, the Scottish Government launched a consultation on proposed changes to the Carers Strategy. The proposals seek to improve support for carers, old and young alike by placing a duty on local authorities to inform and offer them a ‘Carers Support Plan’. Likewise, the Equal Partners in Care (EPiC) project seeks to improve support by increasing awareness and identification of carers across the education, health and social care sectors. These measures are however, focused on carers who are currently providing care.

What about ex or former carers, carers who once provided care but are no longer doing so? The carer population is dynamic and constantly changing whereby 30 to 40 per cent stop providing care each year while a similar proportion start. These figures suggest that the population of former carers is increasing in size and will continue to do so. Don’t they deserve our support too? After all, they put their lives on hold, gave up their jobs and worthwhile careers, or struggled to juggle the demands of work with providing unpaid care for a loved one. Are they not still worthy of our time and attention once caregiving has come to an end?

Sadly, little attention is paid to, and little is known about, the needs and experiences of the two million individuals who become former carers each year. They rarely hit the headlines in national newspapers or feature on local or national television. They are almost completely overlooked by government policy.

Have they picked up the threads of their lives? What is the lasting legacy of caregiving?

Are the negative long term effects that caregiving has on carers reversible or is the outlook for former carers bleak? It has been suggested that when caregiving ends, carers have no purpose to their lives and poor health means they are unlikely to re-enter the workplace. A more positive view is that far from leaving carers with no purpose, caregiving has enabled them to develop new skills and interests. That the end of caregiving may offer former carers the opportunity to explore new horizons and opportunities to use the skills developed whilst a carer. Former carers are potentially a valuable and underused resource.

Is this simply speculation or actual fact? Without evidence we cannot be certain. Carers however, deserve support not only during caregiving but also in the post-caring period when their lives may once again be in a period of turmoil and transition.

This is why researchers from The Open University in Scotland have launched a study into the lives and experiences of former carers. It aims to find out more about their lives and experiences and what kind of support if any, do former carers need after caregiving comes to an end.

• Dr Joyce Cavaye is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at The Open University in Scotland




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