Who Guards the Guards?

Coming quickly on the back of what felt like a really successful and visible Volunteer’s Week comes Carer’s Week (8-14 June 2020).  Carers are a strange but beautiful collection – in the nicest possible way (and I proudly count myself amongst their number).  By definition, they are volunteers – giving up many, many hours of their time each week – but many don’t consider themselves as such.   They provide a wide range of “services” based on what the cared-for person needs, wants, likes – but don’t consider themselves “deliverers of services” or profess any particular skill or title – preferring familial titles of mother, son, daughter, brother – or simply, “friend”.  Indeed, they represent a workforce dramatically larger than that of the NHS – at 6.5 million (compared with around 1.1 million in the NHS (Kings Fund, 2019) – but don’t have an employer, a union, or much of a work-related social scene: the things that can help a workforce to achieve recognition, gain appropriate support and build emotional resilience.

Many carers do not choose what can become their career – or at least part-time job – some gain it suddenly, when a neighbour or family member becomes ill; for others, it grows over time as parents, uncles and aunts age and sometimes grow frail.

And at the moment, many more people are taking up this role as friends, neighbours and family fall ill to Coronavirus, feel unable to seek medical support for other conditions or health challenges – or simply find they need to shield themselves or others from the dangers of the pandemic.

As the team at National Carers week says: “Caring can be a rich source of satisfaction in people’s lives. It can be life-affirming. It can help deepen and strengthen relationships. It can teach you a multitude of skills and help you realise potential you never thought you had. But without the right support, caring can have a significant impact. Evidence shows that caring can cause ill health, poverty and social isolation.”  In fact, carers are seven times more lonely than the general population (and that is before the “lockdown”!).

On a personal level, I can relate to this.  I have undertaken carer roles for family members for many years – including currently as “Lasting Power of Attorney” for several ageing relatives (80-93 years of age).  Mostly, this work involves management of financial affairs – benefit claims, bill payments and the like  – but recently, it involved making the difficult decision to move an uncle of 91 from hospital into residential care at the peak of the pandemic.  I assessed the local care home market, checked CQC reports, websites, reviews, patient forums and discussed the short-list with other family members.  We agreed a short-list of three homes and I fed-back to the allocated social worker.  But of course, at that point in time, places were as rare as hen’s teeth.  There was one home within 20 miles accepting residents on the day my uncle was medically ready for discharge, and it is that home in which he is now living.  It has a “Good” recent overall CQC standard, claims specialist expertise in the appropriate areas and is within a few miles of nearby relatives.  But none of us can visit to check it out.  We have had to agree “deprivation of liberty” arrangements.  My uncle keeps losing his hearing aids and supply can’t keep up – so he cannot talk to us on the phone.  And recently, an ex-employee has “whistle-blown” on the standards of care.  Guilt and self-doubt? Emotional turmoil? Feeling of helplessness? Absolutely – and I have spent 30 years in the worlds of disability, health, social care and public health at a pretty senior level.  I trained in Psychology.  I should really have a grip on all this….

So, in this week – and every week – let us remember the good work that many in our communities are doing – but also some of the very real challenges they face.  Let’s recognise and champion their work and that of the many carer organisations across Cumbria.  For not only do we all have a 50% chance of becoming carers by the time we are 50 years old –  I suspect there is an even higher probability we will be recipients of care ourselves at some point in our lives!

Keep safe – and keep going.

David Allen
Chief Executive Officer
Cumbria CVS