Without carers, health and social systems would collapse

NHS England recently published an End of Year Progress Summary reviewing progress made on 37 commitments made to carers in May 2014. The Commitments to Carers were based on what carers said was important to them. A good start has been made with 32 commitments completed and others continuing to be monitored. But more work needs to be done on the Five Year Forward View commitment to finding new ways to support carers.

In the third of a series of blogs, Emily Holzhausen, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at Carers UK, talks about the challenges carers face and what NHS England Commitments to Carers means to her:

There are an estimated 100 million people in Europe who provide unpaid care to a disabled, seriously-ill or older loved one or friend, with 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK alone. Without carers, health and social care systems the world over would collapse, making the need to better support carers an urgent global concern.

In recognition of this global issue, carers, academics, policy makers, service delivery organisations, charities, and politicians from 32 countries came to together last month at the International Carers Conference in Sweden to share their experiences, and to learn from others about how public services and welfare systems can best support carers.

The UK leads the way on many fronts. This was demonstrated by Jennifer Kenward, Head of Patient Experience, Community, Primary and Integrated Care at NHS England, who set-out NHS England’s Commitment to Carers at the conference.

NHS England recognises that England’s 5.4 million unpaid carers are a hugely important asset to the health service and that helping carers to provide better care and to stay well themselves will contribute to better lives for those needing care and a more effective use of NHS resources. But in order to realise this aim, good leadership at every level of the NHS is needed to all improve systems.

Also at the conference, Herts Valley Clinical Commissioning Group and Hertfordshire County Council jointly presented their integrated model of care which puts carers at the centre of the public health and integrated care agenda.

Whilst the UK leads the way on many fronts, we also have a lot to learn from other nations.

Organisations from countries including Israel, Sweden and Greece were ready to learn from what the UK is doing, but they also had their own insights to offer. For example, carers have long been telling us about how important it is for their health and well-being to get a break from their caring role. The conference broke new ground on this issue as Professor Stephen Zarit from the USA presented clinical evidence which demonstrated the value of breaks from caring. His evidence showed how cortisol levels – hormones which help to control stress levels, blood pressure and memory function – in carers of people with dementia rose after they had a break, compared with carers who did not have a break.

As well as a strong focus on health and well-being, the conference also looked at how people balance caring for a loved one with work. One in nine people in the workforce is juggling work with providing unpaid care to an older, ill or disabled loved one. It is vital that employers do more to support carers in their workforce. NHS England has, like other leading employers, joined Employers for Carers – an employer-led forum which looks at how you can support working carers. Over two million people in the UK have given up work to care; when combined with a shortage of trained and skilled staff in areas such as healthcare, providing support, flexibility and a culture of compassion in the workplace is paramount.

Workplace-based support schemes are growing in number across the world as employers increasingly realise that this provides a double-benefit; supporting staff to balance work with care can mean that people are able to remain in work and stay healthy, whilst the organisation benefits from retained skills, increased productivity and lower recruitment costs from reduced staff turnover.

Throughout all of the presentations delivered at the conference – no matter what the subject matter – the view was the same: supporting families to care well, healthily and to improve their lives is not only a moral goal, but also an economic one.

Countries across the world also recognise that as demand for care will continue to grow rapidly from an ageing population, supporting carers is also vital to the sustainability of our health and care services. Finding ways to identify, include and support carers in an imperative for health services globally as it is for our NHS.

Emily Holzhausen

Emily Holzhausen OBE is the Director of Policy and Public Affairs for Carers UK, who she has been with since 1996, and is one of the country’s foremost experts on carers’ issues.

She is responsible for the organisation’s UK and England strategic development and direction of policy, research, campaigning, parliamentary and media work.

Emily leads on advice and awareness for the charity – supporting tens of thousands of carers each year through its Adviceline services. She is also responsible for Carers Week, one of the UK’s biggest awareness weeks.

Emily has developed and led different campaigns which have resulted in new legislation, policy or practice to improve the lives of carers.

She was a trustee of the Fawcett Society for six years and, prior to her role at Carers UK, she was responsible for public affairs work at the National Federation of Women’s Institutes.

Emily was awarded an OBE for services to carers in the 2015 Birthday Honours.