More than 6 million carers in the UK save the economy £87 billion a year. That's more than the entire annual NHS budget.
Understandably, this dedication puts a strain on individual carers. It is estimated that people providing high levels of care double their own risk of becoming sick or permanently disabled as a result of their responsibilities.
Bridget McCall, author of The Complete Carer’s Guide, says, "Often, carers are so involved that they neglect their own health. If they don’t look after themselves, there could be two vulnerable people rather than just one."
Julie Hill, 52, from Cheshire, has been a carer for her elderly mother for 14 years and for the past eight years has also looked after her husband. Both have Parkinson’s disease. As well as looking after her own family and working as a nursery nurse, Julie used to visit her mother three times a day.
"I wouldn’t know what to expect when I arrived at Mum's in the morning. It changed from day to day. One day she’d be nauseous and on another she’d have fallen.
"Looking back, I was in a constant state of anxiety. I wasn’t sleeping, I was tearful and, at one point, my legs buckled under me when I was at work and I was suffering from palpitations. I went to my doctor, who said it was nervous exhaustion and prescribed antidepressants."
Shortly afterwards, Julie gave up work to become her mother’s full-time carer. She got the help that they both needed, which included occupational therapy, respite care, incontinence advice and lifting aids to ease the strain on Julie’s back.
But just as things started to improve, Julie’s mother had a bad fall and was confined to hospital for five months. "A lot of stress built up in me," says Julie. "I was travelling backwards and forwards to visit her. I lost about a stone in weight and my immune system was run down. That was when I was diagnosed with kidney cancer."
Julie's cancer is now in remission but she is convinced that her illness was connected to the stress of looking after her mother and husband.
As Julie’s story demonstrates, carers strain their mental and physical health. Bridget McCall stresses the importance of looking after both, which isn’t always easy. "Carers can feel guilty about wanting time to themselves but if they have it, it makes them more able to care and gives them an outside interest," she says.
What can carers do to stay healthy?
Ask for help
For Julie, seeking help was the first step towards coping with her role and she urges others to do the same. "Don’t be a victim," she says. "Be proactive."
Bridget agrees. "If things become too much, seek help from your GP, a carers centre or an organisation like Carers UK," she says. "Get help before the situation becomes a crisis."
Make time for yourself
"In a group therapy session," Julie says, "I was asked to draw a circle and mark on it how much time I had for myself. I quickly realised that the problem was I didn’t have any time for myself at all. So I started making sure I made time even if it was just going to the gym for an hour, or to have my hair done. That really helped."
Bridget McCall says, "Carers can get very stressed so any relaxation technique, such as yoga or aromatherapy can really help. It’s vital for carers to look after their wellbeing and feel good about themselves."
Take a break
"People must have regular respite care," says Bridget. "It is fundamental to carers’ wellbeing." Julie says. "One of my main problems was not being able to get out or go on holiday when I wanted. I’d advise other carers to get as much help as they can."
Bridget recommends contacting social services to get a carer’s assessment. "Many carers don’t know they're entitled to be assessed, but an assessment can provide access to other services like respite care," she says. This worked for Julie and meant she got two days' respite care a week for her mum.
Talk to your doctor
Carers need to have regular health checks with their doctor. Check that your surgery knows you're a carer because some surgeries have specialised services for carers.
"Talking to other carers seems to be the most helpful thing for many people," says Bridget. "Mutual support and being able to say what you really feel about a situation is really valuable."
Counselling, group therapy sessions and support groups were a big help for Julie. "I realised that there were other people in the same situation as me and I didn’t feel quite so isolated," she says. The help Julie received inspired her to become a dedicated supporter of Parkinson's UK (formerly the Parkinson’s Disease Society). With her husband she attends a local project for people with Parkinson's and their carers, and helps to run a support group and befriending service for other people who are affected by Parkinson's.
Use the dementia carers' tips video wall below to find out how others have dealt with difficulties caring for a relative with dementia.