By Helena Herklots, chief executive, Carers UK
Although caring is something that touches all of us at some point in our lives, research published this month by Carers UK and Age UK reveals that it is the older generation who are increasingly stepping up to provide care for family and friends. The figures in our report, ‘Caring into later life’, show a staggering rise of 128% in the number of carers aged 85 and older in England over the last ten years and an increase of 35% in those over 65 providing care.
These numbers will continue to grow, with estimates suggesting the number of older carers in England is set to increase to over 1.8 million by 2030. More than 200,000 of these carers will be aged 85 and over. A manifestation of our ageing society, the growing numbers of older carers must be recognised and supported by the NHS and social services as they seek to meet the demographic challenge and put the health and care system on a sustainable footing.
Yet fewer older carers are being offered the support they need to continue caring. We found a 9% drop in the number of carers aged 75 and over being offered support since 2006-7, meaning many face a daily struggle to cope physically, emotionally and financially.
The implementation of the Care Act 2014, which brings stronger rights for carers to have the impact of their caring role assessed and support put in place to meet their needs, is a great opportunity to reverse this trend and provide tailored support to older carers. Another key policy driver, the NHS Five Year Forward View, highlights the need for health services to get better at identifying and supporting older carers.
We know that caring for a loved one at any age presents many challenges. Older carers are more likely to have health problems of their own that can be exacerbated by the strain of caring. Indeed, research shows the more hours a person cares, the bigger effect it has on their own health, not only physically but also mentally – with older carers more likely to report feeling anxious or depressed, especially if they are providing a lot of care.
Professionals carrying out carers’ assessments need to consider carefully whether older carers have enough support or replacement care to maintain their own health; and how their caring role might make it more difficult to keep up relationships with others – areas clearly set out in the carers’ eligibility criteria under the Care Act.
The research also shows that the gender balance of older carers differs significantly from the carer population overall. Six in ten of all carers are women yet the majority of carers over 85 are men, mostly caring for a partner. The tipping point when the number of male carers begins to outweigh the number of female carers comes in the late seventies or early eighties.
Need for research
These characteristics of the older carer population should help to inform the practice of social care professionals. Further research, including qualitative research, is needed to better understand the views and experiences of different groups of older carers and help to plan for the rapid changes in the older carer population.
In our report Carers UK and Age UK make a number of recommendations for what needs to be done – by the NHS, national government and local authorities. However our most important call is for a sustainable settlement for health and social care services to ensure the system has the financial resources to give older carers the practical support they urgently need.