Family carers are unsung heroes. Their work is hidden, unspoken, unrecognised within society, communities, even within their own families. But their life-giving, life-changing work for their loved ones is endlessly important.
This week is Carers Week, a time to recognise the selfless, self-sacrificing work done 24 hours a day, 365 days a year within homes around Galway, with little thanks or support from the Government. Ireland’s health and social care system depends largely on some 300,000 family carers around the country, who are estimated to save the healthcare system €10 billion each year.
The value to the State of family care provided for those with dementia alone is in the region of €807 million per annum. Over 180,000 people in Ireland are currently or have been carers for a family member or partner with dementia, with many more providing support and care in other ways. This figure is set to grow in the coming years as the number of people with dementia in Ireland is expected to more than double over the next 20 years, from 55,000 today to 113,000 in 2036.
And yet carers – and the important work they do – are not fully valued, with respite, home supports and other services almost seen as luxuries, not necessities.
A new survey has found high levels of mental health issues among family carers, such as depression and anxiety, which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with family carers – their focus is on those they care for, not on themselves. And many – particularly older people caring for their spouses – struggle with their own chronic health conditions.
Carers are an invaluable resource, but sadly they are not adequately supported in their role and consequently their health may be affected, according to Trinity memory expert Professor Sabina Brennan, who warned that if we are serious about supporting people to live well at home, then we need to invest in quality services to support both carers and those being cared for. The Alzheimer Society of Ireland is also now calling for the well-being of family carers to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Along with the Government, we can all do more to help carers. For instance, a lack of understanding and fear may keep people from visiting an individual with dementia but people are asked to simply call around and have a chat – even a simple gesture like that could make a difference and lessen the sense of isolation that carers can experience.
Carers must also look after themselves. As Prof. Brennan puts it, ‘It’s sensible and not selfish to look after your own health.’ Carers care so much for others, they need to do it for themselves too.