There is a formidable army of workers among us, toiling behind the scenes, performing essential and important work. Work that holds the very fabric of our society together. They go unpaid, largely unrecognised, and often without thanks. This is despite the replacement value of this unpaid work being estimated at a staggering $77.9 billion per year in Australia.
They are unpaid carers.
They are the more than 2.8 million Australians that support the most vulnerable members of our society, people with a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, terminal illness, alcohol or drug issues or who are frail and aged.
I meet carers every day in my work in General Practice. It is my privilege, to see up close, the amazing work they do. Tirelessly completing a plethora of tasks; monitoring the health and wellbeing of the person the care for, coordinating and organising appointments, treatment, tests, and transport. They provide prompting, explanation, reassurance and support. They ensure scripts are filled and medication taken on time and tirelessly advocate for the person they care for. This, I am sure, in most cases, is just a fraction of the whole.
A shared commitment to helping
Some carers may not identify as a carer and instead see what they are as a natural consequence of their relationship with the person they care for, identifying foremost as a husband, wife, sister or friend. Whether they identify as one or not, they are still carers and all carers are motivated by similar things – love, a sense of duty, a desire to help and to relieve suffering. Caring can be infinitely rewarding but it can be very difficult and requires sacrifice. The time commitment can reduce a carers ability to engage in paid work, exercise, relationships, recreation and travel. Caring comes with an emotional cost and cognitive load and can be financially costly.
For many, there has never been a more difficult time to be a carer.
A survey of Australian carers conducted over April and May this year found that since the COVID-19 pandemic began 42 per cent of carers had lost income, 60 per cent had lost some or all of the supports for the person they care for, 44 per cent spent increased time providing unpaid care and half had lost supports for themselves. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority reported their mental health had deteriorated.
Caring for the carers
In my work I have observed that carers frequently put the needs of the person they care for above their own. Despite carers frequently living with a chronic condition or disability themselves, they will often delay seeking help for their own health issues. It is up to me to remember to not just recognise and thank carers for the work they do, but to see them as a person in their entirety. To steer the conversation to focus on them, to give permission (and sometimes politely insist) that we focus on them and their needs. I try to do this, with varying degrees of success, because it is my job and I have been trained to do so by wiser and better GPs than myself. I think it is something that we should all try to do as a community.
In a couple of months time, National Carer’s Week (11-17 October 2020) is an ideal opportunity to recognise the carers around us, thank them and make a commitment to help where we can, both practically and in advocating for systems and support for the work they do.
After all, it is likely that everyone of us will end up as a carer ourselves at some point in our lives.
As for the 2.8 million Australians who are currently carers, I would like to say a heartfelt thank you and encourage you to see your GP about those niggling health issues or just for a chat – a chat about you and your needs.
Dr Amy Litras is a Ballarat GP and Western Victoria PHN Clinical Spokesperson
For more information on how to care for carers, we encourage GPs and Practice Nurses to register for the Carer Awareness Education Kit.