Carers during coronavirus: we should talk

If you’ve found yourself caring for someone during the coronavirus pandemic, PhD student Justin Byrne from the University of Newcastle introduces the support you can access ahead of a special BES webinar this week.

Justin Byrne

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted everyone differently. People’s day-to-day experience is changing and many will have experienced illness or will have needed to shield themselves due to concerns about the virus. Some people will have had to be there for others, for those ill with the virus, those shielding or those who were unwell before the pandemic who still require support.

I am one of those people, many of you will be too. And for some of you, this might be your first time taking on significant responsibilities for the care of an unwell person.

We need to talk.

Who cares?

I have been caring for six years, but you may have been doing for a few days or a few decades. Anyone who, without being paid to, is looking after a disabled or unwell adult, or a child with complex needs, meets the definition of an unpaid carer.

One in ten of us will be carers at some point in our life

The person you look after may be suffering from a short term illness, a chronic condition, addiction, mental illness or may need end-of-life care. They might be a parent, significant other, child, family member, friend or roommate – they are your unwell someone.

Often people think that these responsibilities are simply doing what any decent daughter/son/parent/brother/sister/friend/person would do. They’re not a ‘carer’, they’re just doing normal helping.

I’m not going to try to convince you that you are a carer. I don’t need you to be in a place emotionally where that label feels right for you. That process took me a long, long time.

But what I would like you to know is that what you are going through is distinctly normal. One in ten of us will be carers at some point in our life. Moreover you are entitled to support, respite, legal protection and possibly welfare remuneration for your work.

What are you missing out on?

In the UK, the government and charities agree that those who provide unpaid care for the unwell should be eligible for financial remuneration for their work in the form of the Carer’s Allowance. Local support teams likely have specific tools and services that you may be able to make use of and make it easier to look after your someone. You can access this through a Carer’s Assessment with an occupational health worker.

Local charities in your area will likely have funds available for you to take a break from your responsibilities, and will have support groups and services for you to make use of. Groups like this can also help you navigate the benefits system, direct you to support for your unwell someone or help you fill out forms in the right language to challenge an decision from the Department of Work and Pensions. National organisations such as the Carers Trust and Carers UK exist to supplement local support.

Unpaid carers are also being prioritised for coronavirus testing, and by keeping up to date with national carers’ organisations you can know if your rights to testing change earlier than expected.

Legally under the Equality Act 2010 you are protected against direct discrimination or harassment because of your caring responsibilities.

Carers and the British Ecological Society

Looking after someone isn’t just about getting by, you deserve to thrive. But as ecologists we know that the work of researching, collecting data and international collaboration is not always easy or flexible. Real-life circumstances can throw a spanner in the works. So for a while, the British Ecological Society (BES) has been supporting a Carers’ group, where you and me and others like us can get together to share strategies for success and coping with failure.

Whatever stage in your career you’re at, the work of dealing with unfair, callous, capricious health crises may be new to you and you may be looking for advice. The work of caring is the administrative work of benefits claims, power of attorney and doctors’ forms. It is the physical work of cooking, cleaning, feeding, bathing, carrying, driving, shopping and medicating. It is the emotional work of counselling the aggrieved, the grieving and the dying. And none of use knew how to do it when we started either.

So please, if this applies to you at all, please come to our carers’ meeting at the end of the month so that we can talk, or so that you can listen if talking is too much right now.

Looking after someone isn’t just about getting by, you deserve to thrive

We’ll talk about the support available, the plans the BES is making to help and those that are ready to share their experience can do so.

I’ve described help that’s available in the UK, and sources of help will be different elsewhere. But I encourage you, wherever you live, to join us and highlight specific challenges you face in your country.

Together let’s start working out how the BES can best support its members. The reality is that every year more carers will unexpectedly join us. We want to give them a warm welcome when they do. So, let’s talk soon.

Joining the webinar

The BES online webinar Carers during COVID will take place on Friday 3 July, 12.00 – 13.00 (BST).

Register here

The panel will take questions from attendees made in the chat box. The anonymity of attendees is paramount, and attendees are strictly required not to “out” others who may not feel comfortable talking openly about their experiences outside of the meeting.