Up and down the UK there are six and a half million people caring unpaid for an ill, frail or disabled family member or friend. Looking after each other is something that we simply do out of love. These people are called carers but they would probably say “I’m just being a husband, a mum, a daughter, or a good neighbour.”
When I was ill for several years in my teens, my family were my carers and I know only too well that without their support there is not a chance I would be doing what I am today.
But I also know that my illness was not just a challenge for me, it affected the whole family. My parents had to rearrange their lives to care for me, my entire family sacrificed their quality of life for the sake of my health and I will never forget the debt of gratitude I owe them for that.
For many people caring comes briefly, maybe helping someone who has come out of hospital to get back on their feet – a few intense months that turn your life upside down and then it’s over. For others a few hours a week helping out. Or for those with disabled children or a spouse or parent with dementia it can be a lifelong commitment, sometimes caring round the clock. The incredible contribution made by carers in these situations can literally be lifesaving.
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 also a devastating impact. When caring is intensive and unsupported it can affect your work, your health – making it difficult to get a night’s sleep – and it can make it difficult to maintain relationships with friends and family. And this can lead to real isolation and hidden suffering.
Statistics tell us that caring is something that will affect each and every one of us at some point in our lives. And here in Oxfordshire alone there are an estimated 60,000 carers but as many as 50,000 are not yet registered or recognized.
Oxfordshire Carers Forum and Age UK Oxfordshire, who both have a long record of supporting carers here in Oxfordshire, are working to address that though and to ensure that carers in Oxfordshire have the support they need. But part of the challenge is making sure that carers identify themselves not as mothers or husbands or siblings alone but also as that vital safety net of our society: carers and, having done so, come forward to access the help, advice and support which is available.
And that is why Carers Week is so important. The people we honour this week – the services, the charities, the carers themselves – have all in different ways ensured that carers interests are not overlooked. They have raised the profile of caring and given other carers the chance to see that they are not alone.
So if you are a carer here in Oxfordshire please know the role you play in our community is highly valued and never forget that you are not alone, there is help out there if you need it.