This is Christine and her mother Margaret. Christine has been her mother’s carer for the past 14 years. She is one of nearly a million people in England over the age of 65 who provide unpaid care to a husband, wife or partner, an adult child with disabilities or even a parent.
Christine and Margaret’s story is a powerful one. It’s a story about huge responsibilities, emotions and life-changes. Margaret moved in with Christine when her husband died. Christine continued to work, but after Margaret contracted an infection and needed a leg amputation, life changed ‘dramatically’. Christine was ‘forced’ into early retirement and full-time caring. Ending work meant that the family’s finances ‘nosedived’ and Christine’s pride was dented when they had to claim benefits. Christine said she then ‘understood what a carer is’ and recognised that carers ‘are entitled to a life of their own’. She now gets 4 hours a week support. It took Christine hitting crisis point to get that support.
Age UK has listened to the experiences of hundreds of older carers like Christine, and despite the fact that many of them find caring rewarding, and an expression of their relationship with the cared-for person, they also talk about how they feel invisible and undervalued. Many are stressed and exhausted.
This week a new exhibition opens at St Martin-in-the-Fields church on Trafalgar Square. It’s called Invisible but Invaluable. Working with photographer Sam Mellish the exhibition aims to make the invaluable work of older carers visible.
The stories illustrated in the exhibition are personal and deeply moving. Every situation is different. But there are common threads. Many people become carers in later life almost without realising it. At a time when their own health may be deteriorating, they find they are having to prioritise the needs of someone else. Then they must navigate their way around the ‘system’ to get the support and help that they need.
Age UK’s call to policy makers is to prioritise the needs of older carers, and to ensure that they receive the financial, practical and emotional help they need. In the current financial environment, the Government needs to be thankful for the unpaid care which older carers contribute – a whopping £15billion in care each year.
A new report by Age UK, Invisible but Invaluable, tells the experiences of hundreds of older carers. It outlines measures which the Government, local authorities and health providers could take to improve the lives of older carers. Simplifying the application for Carer’s Allowance and other benefits, for example, could have a massive impact. As would a drive targeting carers to register as carers with their GPs and receive regular health checks.
If you are in London, go and have a look at the exhibition – it’s open daily from 10am to 5pm, until Saturday 20 November. If you can’t make it, you can view the photographs on the Age UK website