We’re about to discover whether the coalition government can afford to care. On July 1 Westminster MPs will discuss the future funding for carers, a debate health care professionals and unpaid carers will be awaiting with trepidation.
Image: Michael Summers @ Flickr
They have already suffered an ominous sign. Earlier this week, Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of Council at the BMA (British Medical Association), said that despite the government’s best assurances that front-line services will be protected, cuts are already having an impact on doctors’ ability to care for their patients.
Ahead of the elections, I covered a story that highlighted the need for a fully comprehensive Care Strategy to protect and support unpaid carers. Despite the urgent need for reform, the attempts by the three main parties to work together on an effective health care policy broke down into inter-party bickering.
Will a coalition government prove any better at supporting the six million unpaid carers in the UK?
Image: Andy Martini @Flickr
Unpaid carers save the economy £87 billion every year; they give so much to society yet as a consequence of caring they’re twice as likely to suffer from ill health, as well as facing isolation, poverty and discrimination.
In March I met three people that will be directly affected by the carers debate on July 1. Here’s their story.
My life as a carer
Mary Pearson, 66, was an unpaid carer for seven years. Her mother Lily broke both her legs and was left unable to walk and became completely dependent on her daughter who provided her with 24-hour care. The strain of caring meant that Mary’s health seriously suffered; the day came when Mary couldn’t cope any more and had to put her mother into a nursing home. That evening, Mary was admitted to hospital with a leaking heart valve.
“The situation for carers at the moment is very difficult,” says Mary.
“We simply don’t get the back up or support. When my mother came home from hospital they promised me all the help I could get but when I tried to find it, it simply wasn’t there.”
Mary stresses the importance of providing respite for families, so they can have a complete break secure in the knowledge that their loved ones are being looked after properly. “This is really, really necessary,” says Mary. “I used to have to get up two or three times a night to take my mother to the bathroom. It was a 24-hour caring situation. I don’t think the government realises how much carers take on.”
Having struggled to find respite care for her mother, Mary says the government needs a policy that would give carers a break. “They need to put the money in the right place,’ says Mary. “Unless they provide people to sit with your mother when you need to leave her, then just throwing money at the problem isn’t going to help.”
Ways to improve the care system
Hameed Mohamed owned a residential home for 10 years and is about to set up a new care agency. He believes carers don’t get enough help from government resources, and stresses the importance of providing carers with practical skills accrued on training courses. “People often find that they’ve taken on a role of carer with no training in handling, bathing and that sort of thing,” he says. “They’re just expected to know but really they need support.”
Hameed also expressed his concern that there aren’t enough quality care agencies out there. He says:
“Social services contract agencies based on price rather than quality. I don’t feel that they investigate care agencies thoroughly enough. They often wait for something to happen before they act. Yet it’s not social services fault; they themselves are limited and suffer under government cutbacks.”
Hameed would like to see the three major parties working together to decide on one policy to support unpaid carers. “Every time there’s a new party elected there’s a whole set of new policies,” he says. “If they worked together it would benefit everyone; carers, older people and social services.”
The expert advice to politicians
Professor Baroness Ilora Finlay is a leading expert on palliative care in the UK and is a consultant at a cancer centre in Cardiff, Wales. She argued that Westminster politicians could learn a lot from what the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) has achieved in the management of Wales’ health service.
There have been strategies introduced in Wales that nowhere else in the UK has put in place, such as the seven-day nursing care service. “By June we’ll have specialist nurses across the whole of Wales available seven days a week,” said Baroness Finlay, “as well as consultant advice available 24-hours a day, seven days a week, throughout the whole year.”
She explained that the organisation of the health service in Wales is now very different to England. She says:
“We’re working with very different processes and we have a lot less policy change. Because of this we have a much more stable NHS.”
Baroness Finlay believes that the dramatic improvement in Wales’ health care system proves that comprehensive reform across the UK can be achieved, but only if politicians commit to a single, substantial policy.
Gordon Conochie, joint policy and parliamentary officer at The Princess Royal Trust for Carers, asks on his blog what has happened to pledges for carers. I simply echo his words: “The election is passed, new ministers are appointed and the waiting must end – it’s time for change.”