COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges experienced by unpaid carers, cutting them off from important sources of support, a report from Cardiff University says.
The study, funded by Public Health Wales, found people caring for their loved ones had experienced a number of additional pressures since the start of the pandemic. These included fear of the cared-for person becoming infected with COVID-19, financial worries due to loss of income and increased household costs and a lack of accessibility to support services.
Feelings of loneliness, isolation and anxiety have increased, leading to a substantial rise in mental health concerns, the findings reveal.
Some carers reported that the control measures imposed in response to COVID-19 had prompted them to spend more time relaxing with the person cared-for, which had been beneficial for their relationship.
For others, however, the loss of time away from the person cared-for, personal space and activities to enhance their own well-being such as time at the gym, had led to increased feelings of tension and frustration that may have a long-term impact on the sustainability of their caring role.
According to lead author Dr Dan Burrows, Lecturer in Social Work at Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences, "a cultural shift" is needed to recognise and support unpaid carers, with specialised, flexible services available to them locally, building on vital services provided predominantly by the third sector.
He said: "Unpaid carers are the backbone of the health and social care system in Wales and across the United Kingdom.
"During the COVID-19 pandemic, their responsibilities have increased considerably. There are more unpaid carers than ever before, and most of those who provided care before the pandemic are now spending more time providing care for another person.
"There has been a significant impact on many carers’ mental health and rapid remedial action will be needed for those who are reaching crisis point."
Dr Burrows and co-author of the report Dr Jen Lyttleton-Smith, Lecturer in Education at Cardiff Metropolitan University, carried out in-depth interviews, via video link or telephone, with a total of 47 participants, aged from 15 to 85 years.
The interviews highlight the extent of challenges faced by carers prior to the pandemic, the nature of carers’ experiences during the pandemic, and what their hopes and concerns are for the future.
Dr Lyttleton-Smith added: "Despite the vital contributions they make on a day-to-day basis, unpaid carers we spoke to said they are poorly recognised in public discussions of health and social care and have felt overlooked during the pandemic, in contrast to professional health and social care workers, whose efforts they said had received greater recognition.
"This sense of injustice was heightened by the extraordinary level of sacrifice many unpaid carers have made on behalf of the person cared-for, since they have increased the amount of care they have been providing while decreasing the time spent pursuing their own well-being and interests."
The report makes a series of recommendations across broad areas of action: identities and relationships, health and wellbeing, employment, education and finances, and services and systems.
These include identifying carers earlier, bridging gaps in social support groups, delivering specialised counselling and therapeutic services, assessing the sustainability of the Carers Allowance and offering social and academic support for carers in schools and universities.
’Voices of Carers during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Messages for the future of unpaid caring in Wales’ , published today to mark Carers Week 2021.