Across the country there is an army of unpaid carers looking after family members 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are ‘hidden heroes’, taking pressure off NHS services and helping those they love, often in very difficult and trying circumstances, sometimes with very little income or whilst holding down a job to make ends meet, and often at the cost of their own health and wellbeing. It is estimated that there are around 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK, and as life expectancy increases, so do these numbers.
Some may be temporary carers, some may have done it for years, some may not even recognise that they are a classified as a carer. It’s just what they do and they wouldn’t want anyone else to do the job. We know of carers as young as four years old and as old as 92.
Under the Care Act 2014, a carer is classed as ‘somebody who provides support or who looks after, unpaid, a family member, partner or friend who needs help because of their age, physical or mental illness or disability’.
The Princess Royal has raised awareness around issues that unpaid carers face through her charity, Carers Trust. During a visit to a carers centre on Merseyside a while back, someone commented that the best support a carer could receive is to have a break every now and then, even for a couple of hours. A break from doing everything for someone else, time for themselves and to be themselves, to do something fun, away from the shopping, housework and paying bills and all the worries that come with their role, time also to gain skills and confidence. Some recent research discovered that 8 out of 10 carers believe their caring role has a negative impact on their health, with 78% feeling more anxious and 55% experiencing depression because of the role.
MyTime was the simple idea born out of this. Based within Liverpool Carers Centre, a small team of paid staff and volunteers connect carers with companies and organisations who will provide, for free, a range of leisure activities to give carers a break from their day-to-day responsibilities. The first connection we made was with the Malmaison hotel in Liverpool. The reception manager had been a carer and jumped at the chance to help. Now we have 24 hotels, predominantly in Liverpool, but also some around the north-west of England, who regularly provide us with hotel rooms so carers can stay for a night, have a bath, read a book, watch TV, have a good night’s sleep and enjoy breakfast.
But the feedback from some carers when offered an overnight break was that it simply wasn’t an option for them to be away from the person they care for longer than a couple of hours. Who looks after them whilst the carer is away? It might be easier to find another family member or use a carer voucher (which allows up to 5 hours support a week from a paid carer) for a couple of daytime hours. So we started looking for other opportunities. And Liverpool businesses and organisations did not disappoint. We have restaurants offering meals and meal vouchers, cafes offering afternoon tea, spa sessions at hotels, sports sessions, museum visits and historical tours around buildings. Liverpool John Moores University invited carers to its graduation ceremonies as VIP guests of the Vice Chancellor and a training company trained carers how to be baristas.
And it’s not just companies. We’ve had football tickets from someone that they couldn’t use. Someone else has paid for a carer to go out for a meal. It’s also helpful to know about free local events that carers might be interested in attending. It makes such a difference to them. But we have 1500 currently in Liverpool and so demand outstrips supply. We’re always looking for more offers. And we’ll genuinely consider any offer of help. When a carer is referred from the Carers Centre (or they might even refer themselves), we call them and talk to them about the many ways we might be able to help. At that point we ask what they might be interested in should it be offered and we keep a list. As soon as someone offers an activity, we get on the phone to a carer. We do put offers on a private Facebook group but only 35% of our carers have regular access to the internet so we find that picking up the phone is better for them. Caring can be very isolating, the people we call may not have had a conversation with anyone for a while. It can be a good opportunity for a natter and a catch up.
When we find out about the carer’s interest (alongside the assessment done to see how they can be helped more practically in other ways) we grade carers in terms of need. Some carers get along without much support, especially if they have other family members and friends close by. But some are near breakdown so we prioritise them for offers that come in, especially if it’s something lovely like a play or afternoon tea. It can be hard to persuade some people though. They feel so guilty, or simply can’t see how it would be possible for them to leave for any period of time, or don’t want a stranger in their house. We let them adapt their offers though, we try and be flexible and sensitive to people’s needs and circumstances. A hotel break for one of our carers meant a long soak in the bath, watching a couple of hours of TV and then home for the night to fulfil her care duties, before returning next morning for breakfast.
We would love to expand across the country and have received lots of interest from other areas already. The business model, processes and protocols are in place, but as with all these things funding is the big issue. We started with money from the Big Lottery Fund and we’re currently investigating other funding services. Because of funding restrictions, we are currently only able to help carers who are Liverpool City Council residents aged 18 and over.
In 2018 we were honoured to be named as one of The Observer’s ‘New Radicals’. We couldn’t have been prouder. We’ve also had coverage on the BBC and in The Guardian. We’re a local team working with local people and we love the difference we make.
Do you have an activity you could offer to our carers? We want to hear from you. Email us:
Lucy Moss spoke to Mo Austin, project coordinator for MyTime.
An edited version of this article first appeared in Ethos 09.