We urgently need caring homes
Across the UK, there are more than 6.5 million people caring - unpaid - for older, ill and disabled relatives and friends. But the vast majority of these people's homes are 'mainstream' and therefore inaccessible - so what can we do? Heléna Herklots, chief executive of Carers UK, guest blogs.
Did you know that 1.4 million carers in the UK provide over 50 hours of unpaid care per week? This is a growing number, reflecting a population living longer and often suffering with long-term illness.
More and more, families are stepping in as carers, as funding does not keep pace with demand - and often this has dramatic consequences on their health and life chances. The contribution of this unpaid care is worth £132 billion each year.
Failure to adapt
The development of a new, cross-government carers strategy - due to be published at the end of the year - is recognition of how as a society we are increasingly dependent on unpaid carer contribution. It signals a welcome acknowledgement from government for the need to better support the people who are caring for a population with extremely complex needs.
However, a lack of investment in social care provision and the failure of the UK’s housing stock to adapt to the changing demands of an ageing population are making it more difficult for carers and those they care for to manage at home. As we seek to move care of older people and those with long-term health conditions from high cost acute hospitals to the home, the suitability of those homes becomes increasingly important. But it feels like carers are regularly been forgotten about when it comes to housing policy.
Caring for carers
Carers often suffer with health conditions associated with or exacerbated by their caring role, including physical injuries caused by moving and handling without the right equipment. Indeed, the 2011 census shows that those providing 50 hours or more of care a week are twice as likely to be in bad health as non-carers.
The availability of suitable and affordable housing is essential to the health and wellbeing of carers and their ability to provide safe and effective care. Carers UK’s latest report shows that the vast majority of those providing care, and older households, live in 'mainstream' housing – 95 per cent of which is inaccessible, according to Age UK's 'Agenda for later life'.
It is no surprise, then, that adaptations are the main issue for carers - plus, they also have a huge financial and time benefit. Recent research from Australia showed that adaptations resulted in a 41 per cent reduction in time spent by a carer – this then freed up their time for other activities or work. Yet carers are having to wait for long periods of time for adaptations to be made – one carer told us that "fighting for adaptations for eight years" was "taking its toll" on their health.
What can we do?
With the annual cost of housing disrepair to the NHS in excess of £1.4 billion, it's clear that this issue cannot be ignored. We need a national, cross-government housing strategy linked with the new carers strategy, designed with the needs of an ageing population at its heart.
Local authorities should support and encourage the creation of a national database of all suitable properties, helping to make better use of existing stock and adapted properties. In monitoring the implementation of the Care Act 2014, the government should include an assessment of whether housing needs are being considered as part of social care needs and carer assessments. Otherwise, the much-celebrated new rights in the Care Act won’t become a reality for many families.
Social security policy also has a key role. Carers UK recently secured a welcome exemption for carers entitled to carer’s allowance - the main benefit for carers, which can be claimed by qualifying carers providing 35 hours or more care per week - from the benefit cap. But other areas of policy - such as the 'bedroom tax' - still present huge extra challenges to carers and their families who need a room for respite, have adapted homes or need to stay close to established support networks.
Being cared for or caring for someone in our own homes is becoming part of everyday life for more and more of us - and we need the right housing to be able to do so safely and well.
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