We must start caring about carers

It’s one of those statistics that once you read you will never forget. It is estimated that unpaid carers save the taxpayer £119 billion each year.To put this into perspective, the entire Department of Health budget for 2011/2012 was just £106 billion.

In the light of this striking statistic, it is depressing to see that families are still not being properly rewarded for the care they are giving and the huge costs they are saving the taxpayer. A new report by Mencap has shown that 8 in 10 family carers for people with learning disabilities do not have enough short breaks with 90% of carers saying they feel stressed as a result of this.

The pressures of caring for a family member with learning disabilities can be immense. In the families we support at the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, we hear all too frequently stories of sleepless nights, constant worries about the health or well-being of the person they are caring for, and the continual fight to get a service or the appropriate support. Indeed, it is rare to meet a family where both parents are in full-time work, due to their additional caring responsibilities. This combination of this financial, emotional and physical pressure puts many family carers at ‘breaking point’.

An effective way to reduce this pressure is through short breaks These breaks typically take the form of getting direct payments to fund their own support, placements with other families or visits to short breaks centres. The benefits of this breathing space are obvious and it means that, for example, parents of younger children have some time to do things with their other children that may not be possible to do as a family. Young people and adults get the opportunity to meet new people, go to new places and try new interests independently from their families.

But, as the report shows, very few families are actually getting these breaks, and this reality is mirrored in the families we have heard from. There are certain problems inherent in the system. We know, for example, that there is a discrepancy on what short-term breaks are offered to children and adults. Short- term breaks are often reduced as the young person turns 18 leading to additional stress for parents, who may be caring for other children and a loss of in dependence for young people at a time when it is important to be spending time outside of the family to gain confidence and self-esteem.Families are also being let down by services. We have heard of one short- break agency that could not provide cover for a child when the regular carer was sick and no extra date was offered.

There are further problems caused by the closure of residential short-break services. Alternatives provided through personal budgets are more appropriate for some people but others are missing the opportunity to spend time with friends and away from their family home. Many of these closures are being introduced with alarming swiftness, causing family carers and people with learning disabilities to be confused and upset.

It is time that family carers for people with learning disabilities are given the recognition, not only for the hard work and pressures they deal with every day, but also for the huge amount of money they save the state. No family carer should ever be allowed to reach their ‘breaking point’.