Research carried out by Circle (the Centre for International Research on Care, Labour and Equalities) at the University of Leeds offers insights and new ideas. We studied the impact and effectiveness of 25 multi-agency projects funded by the Department of Health, set up to explore new ways of supporting some of England’s most hard-pressed carers. Almost 19,000 carers participated and we found many really valued the extra help they received.
The programme employed an innovative strategy aimed at improving how local agencies work together by involving partners in the voluntary sector, NHS and local authorities. The projects offered carers three main types of extra help: a break from caring, made accessible in a new and much more flexible way; a health and wellbeing check specially designed with carers’ needs in mind; and timely support just when and where they really needed it, accessed through GPs and hospitals.
Our report New Approaches to Supporting Carers’ Health and Well-being: evidence from the National Carers’ Strategy Demonstrator Sites Programmehighlights ideas that work to help carers stay well and healthy, to get a short break or chance to meet their own needs. For carers struggling to make ends meet, small investments in gym memberships, laptops or short holidays make a real difference, yet cost only a fraction of what needs to be spent if their care breaks down or cannot be sustained.
Special health and wellbeing checks spotted many physical and mental conditions, including diabetes, depression and cancer, which – as carers often put their own needs second to those of others – were previously undiagnosed. When GPs or hospitals work together with social services and voluntary agencies in their area, support for carers can really improve at a comparatively small cost.
We delivered our findings at a conference in Leeds in front of almost 200 delegates from across the health and social care sector. Their enthusiasm for continuing this type of support, and extending it nationwide, was palpable. Many felt the new schemes and partnerships had demonstrated that the “step-change” in carer support which campaigners have called for over many years was indeed achievable.
None needed reminding of the challenges ahead: meeting the growing demand for care at home in an ageing society; alleviating pressures on carers which damage their health and quality of life; helping carers to combine work and care; and finding ways of providing better, more personal and individual care without additional cost.
Circle researchers have consistently made the case for better carer support. Our work has informed policy developments under both Labour and coalition governments. Unsupported, carers risk exhaustion, isolation and stress – yet when valued and offered flexible services, many see caring as among the most rewarding and important things they have ever done.
The Department of Health’s Demonstrator Sites programme showed the value of services provided at critical stages: when caring first arises, at points of change or stress in the caring situation, when caring is long-term or intensive. Many of those involved in the new support, and the carers who benefitted from it, felt passionately that ways must be found of continuing – and expanding – this approach. They believe there are low-cost ways of creating sustainability in England’s health and social care system. All would argue the UK’s 6.4 million carers should be rewarded rather than punished for looking after those they love. It is hard to disagree.
• Sue Yeandle is professor of sociology and director of Circle in the school of sociology and social policy at the University of Leeds