UK dependence on unpaid carers is unsustainable, says new research

The UK’s dependence on familial carers to look after its ageing population is unsustainable, according to new research.

Increasing and intense personal, professional and emotional strain means that people providing this care are struggling with an intolerable burden, according to new findings.

The research forms the basis of a new campaign by private home care provider Home Instead called What About You?, which features two short films about the pressures of caring, and its impact.

It was conducted into the lives and lifestyles of the nation’s multi-generational carers – and the findings have been described as ‘disturbing’.

According to the snapshot study of 2,000 people from across the UK, voluntary carers are typically middle-aged people who are trying to care for elderly parents, while working, and bringing up their own families.

A new campaign from private home care provider Home Instead includes two short films highlighting the pressures of caring, which often involves people juggling caring for elderly parents, working, and looking after their own families (still from film)

The strain placed on carers has been described as an intolerable burden following research voluntary caring (still from What About You? campaign film)

Research into the voluntary care sector uncovered some sobering stats, with a worrying 31 per cent of carers saying they feel they are at breaking point (still from What About You? campaign film)

In addition to struggling with the pressures of caring, many people are unaware of the help that is available via the state and privately (still from What About You? campaign film)

This pressure has been described as ‘unmanageable’, and can have a devastating impact, with the research suggesting that when it comes to carers, 88 per cent neglect their own health and wellbeing, 65 per cent struggle with their mental health, and 31 per cent feel they are at breaking point. 

And the numbers of people in this situation are significant: an estimated 5 million plus people in the UK provide unpaid care.

According to the study, they are ‘given minimal support from the government or local authorities and so find themselves increasingly struggling, without understanding the other support available to them in the market’.

And as the ageing population grows, this problem is set to worsen: over the past decade, the number of people aged over 64 has surged by 20 per cent to 11.1 million people.

Nearly one in five people in England and Wales are aged 65 and over, with more in this age bracket than aged 15 or under.

Home Instead’s What About You? campaign aims to raise awareness about the scale of the problem facing voluntary carers, and spark a debate about what support can be provided. 

To illustrate these pressures, the campaign features two short films based on interviews with representative real life family carers, which it describes as ‘an unapologetically raw exploration of what day to day life is like for millions of multi-generational carers across the UK’.

The main film shows a day in the life of three fictional family carers struggling to balance work and life pressures.

Reacting to the short film (still from film) one of the carers spoke about how he never saw himself as 'looking after' his mother per se, as 'it's my family, so it's what you do'

The campaign film (pictured) also tackles the struggles faced by carers and those they are caring for when it comes to facing debilitating conditions

A key finding during the research was that people need to be educated about what help is available so they can reach out for support before reaching breaking point (still from What About You? campaign film)

Meanwhile, the second film shows a group of real family carers reacting to the main film and discussing it.

Opening up during the discussions, the carers reveal some of the burden they have struggled with – as well as the weight of their own expectations.

According to one carer: ‘I never really saw saw it as looking after [my mum] because it’s my family, so it’s what you do.’

However, the close familial ties can make the experience extremely emotionally difficult, as one carer explained, saying: ‘There’s something incredibly sad about watching your dignified, independent, capable, successful parents diminish to a point where they can’t remember, they’re frail, they’re at risk.

‘It’s a constant worry. You just try. You just have to keep going. There is no choice you have to keep going. Until that moment comes where you just say I can’t do this anymore.’

According to Home Instead, a key educational element of the campaign is about recognising the strain before getting to that breaking point – and being aware of what support is available to avoid reaching that point.

The campaign considers how home care can be a solution when it comes to providing respite to carers, allowing time away from caring responsibility, which may subsequently help to restoring important family relationships which can suffer as a result of the pressures of caring.

Guilt, isolation, stress: the pressures of caring

What is particularly striking in the research is the extent to which, despite their extraordinary efforts, carers consistently feel guilty – about not doing enough for the person or people they’re caring for, for their partner, their day job and even for themselves.

The research reveals that:

· 86% feel guilty about not doing enough for their parents or children

· 71% feel guilt about not being able to put enough into work, 75% about neglecting careers

· 78% feel that way about their marriage/relationship, 85% about other relationships (friendships)

In addition to guilt, there are other issues of concern around mental health and well being:

· 45% feel isolated or trapped 

· 49% feel stressed, 57% exhausted

· 38% feel they are juggling too much, 33% feel overwhelmed and helpless

· 42% take prescribed medication for anxiety or depression

· 23% self medicate with alcohol, 17% with drugs bought illegally

And for many, there is no end in sight – with some 39% saying they expect to be in this situation for more than five years.


Speaking about carers, Home Instead CEO Martin Jones said it is ‘impossible’ to think of a group that does more for less in this country than family carers, but added that their wellbeing is ‘almost entirely neglected’.

He continued: ‘Younger families receive state support in the form of subsidised childcare or paid maternity and paternity leave. 

‘But those who are 20-30 years older, and who are often supporting both younger and older dependents, are almost completely neglected.

‘As a society, we rely on their unending energy and love, giving them little or no support to navigate the complex social care system. 

‘They get no breaks, no help, little financial support and, as our research shows, this is taking a huge toll. 

‘Their mental health is at a dangerous low. 

‘They struggle to keep going and significant numbers are at breaking point.’

This is compounded due to a lack of knowledge around what help is available, Martin added, when it comes to both private and state provision.

The stats support his assertion: 59 per cent of those taking part in the study know little about what help is available.

Furthermore, 40 per cent believe turning to social care is a sign of weakness for themselves, and 44 per cent believe it means they’re failing their family.

The research also found that more than half (53 per cent) ‘know nothing about the wealth of social care options available through private providers and the different ways to pay for them such as Direct Payments’.

The organisation believes that the solution is education – to help people know what assistance is available, and to alleviate any stigma associated.   

‘It’s heartbreaking to read how the effort to keep all the plates spinning leaves so many people feeling guilty and alone,’ Martin Jones added.

‘Improving people’s understanding of what help is available and where to find it is a crucial starting point and more must be done to educate and inform. 

‘More and more people are looking to private healthcare support outside of state provided social care – in recent months we’ve seen a huge spike in inquiries about our services.

‘The What About You campaign aims to bring to life the daily strain so many multigenerational carers find themselves under. 

‘It is a reminder that they are demonstrating truly inspiring compassion and commitment on a daily basis – but they need help. 

‘No one can carry this kind of burden alone – although that doesn’t stop millions trying.’


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