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Understanding carers

Health and social care

As a health or social care professional, carers' needs are an integral part of your work.

Depending on your role, you may come into contact with carers face-to-face or be involved in planning services for them or the people they look after. Carers’ needs are the responsibility of the individual staff who deal with them as well as organisations as a whole.

Understanding carers and considering their needs will benefit you and the service you provide, as well as carers themselves and the people they care for.

Who are carers?

A carer is anyone who provides unpaid care for a family member or friend who is ill or disabled, or frail because of old age. The 2001 census found that 5.2 million people were providing unpaid care. This means that around 11% of the population aged five years or older are carers.

There is no typical carer, as each carer’s situation is different. Carers can be old or young, male or female, disabled or non-disabled. Sometimes two people with care needs support each other. Mutual caring can occur in different situations, for example, if a couple both have healthcare needs, or an elderly parent has an adult child with a learning disability.

There are some issues that many carers share. Carers are more likely than the rest of the population to be affected by health problems such as depression, stress-related illness or back pain caused by moving or lifting the person they care for. Carers and the people they look after are also more likely to be on a low income.

Many carers combine caring with employment, with some caring more than 50 hours a week as well as working full-time. Others may give up work or reduce their hours because of their caring responsibilities. 

Often, people with caring responsibilities do not define themselves as carers. If someone is caring for a relative or partner, they are likely to see themselves first as a husband or daughter (for example). Even someone who looks after a non-relative such as a friend or neighbour may not call themselves a carer.

The government national carers’ strategy Carers at the heart of 21st century families and communities states that by 2018:

  • carers will be respected as expert care partners and will have access to the integrated and personalised services they need to support them in their caring role
  • carers will be able to have a life of their own alongside their caring role
  • carers will be supported so that they are not forced into financial hardship by their caring role
  • carers will be supported to stay mentally and physically well and treated with dignity
  • children and young people will be protected from inappropriate caring and have the support they need to learn, develop and thrive and to enjoy positive childhoods 

Carers have a legal right to have their needs assessed by their local authority if they provide regular and substantial care. By law, local authorities and NHS organisations must also work together to make sure that support for carers is delivered in a coordinated way. See carers’ rights for more information.

Watch the video below to see how a carer gets support for herself and her disabled daughter.

Tips on working in partnership with carers 

There are many different ways that health and social care organisations can help to ensure they meet the needs of carers. You may want to suggest your organisation adopts some of the following ways of helping carers:

  • identify a carers champion within the organisation who will take primary responsibility for making sure that carers’ needs are considered
  • provide 'carer awareness' training for all staff (it can be helpful to involve carers or carers’ organisations in delivering this training)
  • develop links to local carers’ organisations to explore ways in which you could work together to support carers (for example in some hospitals, a carers’ centre employee supports carers during the hospital discharge process)
  • ensure that systems and processes promote carer identification and recording
  • make sure there are clear best practice guidelines for working with carers and staff are aware of these and use them (this could include a charter setting out what carers should expect from the organisation)
  • start up a staff carers’ network
  • ensure information for carers is readily available and well publicised so carers can easily find out what support exists and what they can expect (all information should be up to date and available in different formats. To avoid problems with recognition of the word carer, it can be helpful to publicise information using questions such as Do you help to look after someone?)
  • involve carers in service planning and development
  • provide training for carers in areas such as lifting and handling, continence care, use of equipment, stress management and maximising their own health and wellbeing
  • develop a carer strategy to officially record the organisation’s goals and how these will be met

Guidance on working with carers

The British Medical Association has produced guidance for doctors and medical students working with carers (PDF, 100kb).

Supporting Carers:an action guide for general practitioners (PDF, 3.7Mb) and their teams is a good practice guide to help GP practices ensure they are responding to the needs of carers. The guide was produced by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers (now the Carers Trust) and the Royal College of General Practitioners. The trust's website has a dedicated section for GPs.

Confidentiality can be a problem area for those working with carers, particularly in the field of mental health. The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Carers and confidentiality in mental health aims to address this.

Further guidance for mental health professionals is available in Triangle of Care – Carers Included: a guide to best practice in acute mental health care (PDF, 681kb) a joint publication by the National Mental Health Development Unit and the Carers Trust.

Commissioning for carers (PDF, 9.4Mb) is a publication aimed at directors of adult services, directors of primary care trusts, and anyone who commissions carers services. It was produced by a partnership of local government, NHS and carers’ organisations, and aims to serve as a template for better commissioning for carers. 

Examples of good practice

There are many examples of good practice from organisations working with carers in health and social care. The following are just some of the examples of good practice identified across England.

The Carers Trust has published a report reflecting on its Out of Hospital project (PDF, 570kb). The project looked at how supporting carers during hospital discharge can save the NHS time and money by avoiding unnecessary readmissions and addressing carers’ health needs. 

The Social Care Institute for Excellence's Good Practice Framework has a database of good social care practice examples, including Camborne Redruth Community Hospital’s work with carers of people with dementia, and Wandsworth Council’s work to improve their support for carers and gain carers’ feedback on the council’s assessment processes.

NHS Choices syndication

Each month, around two million people access content from NHS Choices on more than 100 partner websites, including primary care trusts (PCTs), GP practices and local authorities. The free syndication programme allows partners to embed NHS Choices content within their websites, negating the need for in-house development. To find out more see NHS Choices syndication.

Profound intellectual and multiple disabilities

Someone with profound intellectual and multiple disabilities has a complex range of difficulties, including learning difficulties. In this video, an expert explains some of the challenges of this condition, and a mother describes how her daughter's difficulties have affected their family life.

Media last reviewed: 11/11/2014

Next review due: 11/11/2016

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Page last reviewed: 11/12/2013

Next review due: 11/12/2015

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