Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Unpaid carers spending longer periods of time caring for loved ones

The latest data from the Office for National Statistic (ONS) shows that while the number of unpaid carers is lower now compared to in 2011, these carers are typically spending significantly more hours a week caring for their loved ones.

Indeed, the Census reveals that there has been an overall drop in the number of people who provide unpaid care to a relative or friend who has a disability, illness or mental health condition, from 5.8 million in 2011 to 5 million in 2021.

Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK, said this finding is surprising and “out of step” with what families are telling the charity.

Half of unpaid carers don’t realise they are a carer during the first year

Census 2021 Director Jon Wroth-Smith says this decrease could be explained by the marked improvement in the health of the population (with 47.5% of people in England and Wales saying their health was very good in 2021 compared to 45% in 2011) and the declining proportion of disabled people (17.7% people were disabled in 2021 compared to 19.3% in 2011).

However, Mr Wroth-Smith says other possible explanations include the lockdown measures which were implemented in 2020, the high number of deaths due to Covid-19 and a change in question phrasing.

He said: “Potential explanations for this large change in the provision of unpaid care could be a result of lockdown measures, with people who previously shared caring responsibilities with a sibling, for instance, taking on that role alone due to a reduction in household mixing. This could be why, while the number of unpaid carers has declined, we have seen an increase in the proportion of people providing more hours of care as individuals took on more responsibility.

“However, this is just one possible explanation. Another could be the high numbers of deaths due to Covid-19 in 2020 and early 2021. Sadly, this could have led to a reduction in the need for unpaid care, while changes in the question wording between 2011 and 2021, for both the unpaid care and disability questions, may have had an impact on results too.”

The 2011 Census asked whether the individual provided unpaid care for family, friends or neighbours, while the 2021 question asked whether they provided unpaid care for anyone.

Carers UK say this will have had an impact because people don’t recognise themselves as carers. Ms Walker said: “Many people don’t identify themselves as unpaid carers and take years to do so – 51% of carers took over a year even though they were providing substantial care.

“Most people consider themselves to be a partner, husband, wife, son, daughter, good friend or neighbour and don’t recognise themselves as unpaid carers,” she explains.

Health and social care system would “collapse” without unpaid carers

Carers UK say the rise in the number of carers providing 20-49 and 50+ hours of care is concerning. In 2021, there were 260,000 more people providing unpaid care for 20-49 hours a week and 152,000 people providing care for 50 or more hours a week.

The charity says providing 20 or more hours of care a week can have a “devastating impact” on carers’ health, wellbeing and ability to juggle work and care, and is a reason why unpaid carers often have worse health outcomes than non-carers.

“Being able to take a break and having the opportunity to maintain their own health and wellbeing is vital to supporting carers in their continued role. If carers suffer from exhaustion or breakdown, this adds significant cost and extra pressure on the NHS and to social care,” the charity says.

Ms Walker says this increase is “clearly a result of the shortage of adequate and properly funded social care services and health services to support unpaid carers and the people they care for.”

For this reason, Carers UK are calling on the government to provide funding to help carers take breaks and respite, as well as funding to restore social care services to relieve pressure on family members and friends.

“Without the support provided by unpaid carers our health and social care systems would quite simply collapse. It is vital that the Government recognises the pressing needs of this huge swathe of people and develops a funded National Carers Strategy for England.

“This would help millions of carers around the country get the practical and financial support they need to care without putting their health and livelihoods on hold,” she said.

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