Covid 19 has scored a sizeable hit on life as we once knew it. Businesses and services were closed. Many people lost their jobs. Travellers were stranded overseas and grocery shopping became the social highlight of the week. As schools closed and moved to online learning, many parents struggled to balance working from home with supervising homeschooling. Almost every part of our community has been hit one way or another, including unpaid carers.
Across Australia there are approximately 2.7 million unpaid carers. Two-thirds of these carers are women. Unpaid carers may be caring for a partner or a child or another member of the family and it is estimated that they provide over 1.9 billion hours of unpaid care every year. If this care were to be provided by a paid service, it would cost around $60.3 million – every year. With an ageing population, the level of unpaid care needed is only likely to increase in the future.
During April to May this year, the Caring Fairly Coalition conducted a survey of carers to investigate the impact of Covid 19. They discovered that:
- 60% of carers lost some or all of the supports for the person they cared for
- 47% of carers lost support for themselves
- Only 10% of carers received extra support for themselves or their family member
- 44% of carers had an increase in the time they were providing unpaid care & support
- the number of carers providing more than 45 hours of care per week, increased from 27% to 50% due to a reduction in services
Prior to Covid 19, Dan was receiving approximately 40 hours of support each week plus fortnightly support on weekends for leisure activities and respite. This support is provided by a Disability Support Provider and is funded by the NDIS. The support fulfils two main aims. Firstly, it assists Dan to participate in community and social activities. Secondly, it provides respite for me, his primary carer. It gives me time to study, attend appointments and do things that are difficult to do when Dan is around. We love Dan to bits, but caring for him is tiring and we need a break from time to time.
When the social distancing restrictions were imposed, we lost most of our support. Dan’s group activities were cancelled because they could not meet the social distancing requirements and maintain adequate safety for clients, like Dan. Weekend respite was cancelled because it posed a health risk to the other client with whom Dan was staying. We could have continued with some one/one support, but it posed a dilemma. Every support worker that Dan comes in contact with, spreads the circle of contact wider and wider. The support workers had their protocols to follow, but what about the people they come in contact with. Not everybody does the right thing. To minimise the risk, we had to forgo all support. Dan went from at least 40 hours of support a week to none. It was a very long three months with Dan home 24/7 and no respite.
The Caring Fairly Coalition launched a national campaign in August 2018 to bring attention to the rights of carers and advocate for change. They believe that the dependence upon unpaid care in Australia is “unsustainable and unfair.” It is also an issue of human rights. They state:
“Unpaid carers in Australia have not benefitted fairly from the economic, social and cultural gains that the country as a whole has made over the last four decades. The Australian Government needs to take steps to correct this. It must support unpaid carers to balance work and care (wherever possible), reduce gender gaps in workforce participation, and take steps to ensure more equitable retirement incomes and savings for unpaid carers.” (Caring Fairly Coalition)
Even prior to Covid 19, balancing caring responsibilities with employment was an almost impossible task. It is difficult for many carers to find flexible employment. It is difficult for carers, who have spent many years out of the paid workforce, to find their way back in. For some carers, mostly women, their age will be against them. In an economy reeling from Covid 19 and struggling to get back on its feet, I suspect for many carers, it will now be too late.
Fortunately for us, Dan’s supports have slowly started returning and technology has played a part. Dan’s support provider, Yellow Bridge, organised some group activities on Zoom, even holding a Zoom Disco. Dan and his friends love singing and dancing. This weekend they are having another Zoom Disco with everyone dressing up in their favourite superhero costumes. Dan has started doing bushwalking and bowling with a support worker again, and soon Yellow Bridge hopes to be able to start a modified group program.
There is an old African proverb that says, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I believe that saying is true for a person’s entire lifetime. Carers need the village to help them care for their family member with a disability or illness. We cannot do it alone.