Amid all the levity and sparkle of the festive season, it is easy to forget those for whom daily routines structure lives and limit social interaction.
Most of us will recognise that those who care for others – either professionally or on a voluntary basis – are unsung heroes in our communities, providing a service that tends too often go overlooked. But what can the rest of us do to make a difference to carers’ lives? Quite a lot, as it happens.
This time of year, carers are in particular need of practical and emotional support, as Christmas can bring a variety of challenges.
Sallie Fellows of Hackney Carers says: “Christmas is a very expensive time of year for most people. We are also mindful of carers who have no family at Christmas other than the person they care for so we see an increase in poor mental health.
“They are bombarded with TV shows and advertising celebrating families getting together at Christmas and this can be an extremely difficult time for our carers who have become isolated due to the person they care for being housebound.”
Hackney Carers is one of the few support groups that stays open throughout the holiday season, putting on events such as outings and meals for groups of carers from different cultural backgrounds (including a Turkish/Kurdish women’s group and a Somali women’s group), and carers of people with different needs (for example, adults with learning disabilities and those with mental health conditions).
Fellowes added: “we would like to see as many people as possible donating good quality festive food and toiletries to the foodbank and for people to check up on neighbours who might be spending Christmas alone or caring for someone who cannot leave the home”.
Volunteers are also needed to support carers themselves and given them some respite and a break outside of the house from their carer roles.
In the latest census, 18,000 adults in Hackney identify themselves as being an unpaid carer, spending anywhere between 10 to 70 additional hours per week caring for a loved one. Being a carer limits access to social activities and creates barriers to making and maintaining friendships.
There is also a lack of respite for carers. 8 out of 10 (83 per cent) carers responding to Carers UK’s State of Caring Survey 2014 have felt lonely or socially isolated because of their caring role, and this worsens for people who care for people with dementia.
Working with Volunteer Centre Hackney’s Community Supporters Project, Steph Williams has supported local resident P who has been the sole carer for her father following his diagnosis with dementia. She and Steph have been going for coffee and long walks for an hour a week.
Steph says: “When I originally signed up for volunteering I didn’t realise how much I would also gain from it from the experience. Initially I joined because I wanted to do something for the community, but I quickly began to realise that it was as very beneficial for me.
“Meeting with P was a joy. We went on walks (basically little local adventures) around the Hackney area, and she introduced me to new way of thinking about things – that I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. We talked, walked, met for coffee, and once tried to teach ourselves chess! Also, thanks to P, I have started knitting again!”
Lauren Tobias of Volunteer Centre Hackney says: “Through our network of dedicated volunteer befrienders, Volunteer Centre Hackney’s Community Supporters Project are supporting carers and the people they care for to feel less lonely, to reduce isolation, tackle feelings of loneliness and build confidence in the community.”
Long-time Hackney resident Fran Saunders, who worked as a carer for two years, laments the low status professional carers tend to have in our society: “we expect carers to perform their duties we and don’t give enough respect for the sacrifices they make in order to earn a living. Would you be selfless enough to listen to someone else all the time and just keep giving?
“Ask any carer and they will tell you they have really bad backs and all the lifting and bending and daily caring activities are affecting their own personal life. I don’t know a carer who is not constantly at the doctor’s for a treatment of sort but they are willing to sacrifice their well being to care for others.
“Most carers make a connection with every client and truly care. They are angels working out there who feel completely responsible for their clients. So this winter please remember the carers. They need protecting and caring for too.”