SPECIAL REPORT - Harrogate’s hidden carers

Staff members at the Carers' Resource, all of whom have worked with carers for over ten years. (S)
Staff members at the Carers' Resource, all of whom have worked with carers for over ten years. (S)

It is becoming widely acknowledged that the elderly population, particularly in North Yorkshire and the Harrogate district, is vulnerable and often invisible. However, the dedicated families, friends, and neighbours who care for them can be as much affected by loneliness and social isolation as the older people so in need of support. JAMES METCALF reports.

With more than half a million carers in Yorkshire, it has been estimated that half of carers don’t work, that one in seven have debts of at least £10,000, and that the number of carers over 85 has doubled in 10 years.

Reduced social contact, stress factors like a reliance on overdrafts and credit cards, and health problems of their own to deal with, carers are increasingly likely to become lonely and isolated.

This is prevalent in the Harrogate and rural district, which has an elderly population more than 5 per cent higher than the national average, yet initiatives like the Carers’ Resource and Harrogate Easier Living Project (HELP) are doing what they can to help.

Anna Jackson has been head of development at the Carers’ Resource for almost a decade. In that time she has helped carers with innumerable issues they face every day, from money worries to social stigma.

“People often cut themselves off when they become a carer. Quite often the first thing to go is their job, and that is the wrong decision because people then lose their independence and normality,” she said.

“They often then exclude friends and family because they are embarrassed. They are ashamed about how they will be viewed, and that is a tragic situation.

“And it is only going to get worse as life expectancy increases. Our health care system is great, but the stresses and strains of the people looking after loved ones is very intense.

“There is now a real drive to keep people at home when they are ill, and the impact on carers who now have to give injections and manage catheters and specialist feeding tubes with minimal training and they are absolutely terrified.”

Aside from these isolating problems, the problems of disposable income, shopping, and what become necessary difficulties when arranging to leave the house can be isolating purely because carers have no-one to talk to.

Ms Jackson said: “You can’t do the things you used to do even if you want to because of the added costs and reduced disposable income. If you want to go out you need specialist equipment and the costs just completely preclude you from doing anything.

“There is often the guilt of someone saying I am not coping. Carers feel these emotions and feel they are not a partner anymore but a nursemaid, and that can be very isolating.

“Not only can it be difficult for them to get out in terms of physical things, they can’t leave the person they are looking after.

“If someone is caring for someone who then goes into care, they have not only lost their social group and their work, but also their 24/7 role of looking after this person and they just don’t know what to do and that is terrible.

“We really want to reach out to those people and recognise the strains they are still under and help them feel valuable again.”

From lunch groups bringing similarly affected people together in an environment free of judgement, to activities designed to get carers back into their community, and a telephone befriending service, Caring Callers, aimed specifically carers who are in need of someone to talk to them about them.

HELP also runs a project, called Carers’ Time Off, dedicated to alleviating some of the strain carers feel. Volunteers are placed in homes to stay with vulnerable or elderly people, giving their carers the time to develop a hobby, see friends, or take care of important matters that otherwise get left behind.

Carers’ Time Off coordinator Christine Boxall believes this is essential for carers as much as it is for the people they care for.

She said: “Caring for someone can be very isolating for a number of different reasons. The carer may have been forced to stop work, friends sometimes drop away, other family members live at a distance, activities that were once enjoyed as a couple are no longer accessible, the carer is unable to go out and enjoy the activities they used to do or maintain their social networks.

“Having a break is more likely to help someone with caring and give them the necessary time for to recharge their batteries. They may want a break so that they can follow up their interests and catch up with family and friends, or simply to sleep. It enables carers to regain areas of their lives and have time to themselves and can help reduce anxiety.

“The strength of our service is that it is personal and friendly, flexible, free at the point of access and open to all carers provided they have had a carers assessment.

We take great care matching volunteers with cared for individuals which means that vulnerable people benefit from our service as well as carers who have a break.”

Call the Carers’ Resource on 01423 500555, and for HELP call the Harrogate and Ripon Centres for Voluntary Service on 01423 813090

Doreen’s story:

Doreen Firth is 86-years-old and has Ménière’s disease.

This means she falls over regularly because of the effect of the disease on her balance.

A year ago Doreen also had to go into hospital because of a twisted bowel, and it was upon returning home that she realised she needed help.

“It was not very pleasant, and I have gradually gone down hill over the past two or three years,” she said.

“I don’t struggle too much now. I have been 12 months with Carefound, but for the first three months I could have died.

“Now I have relaxed completely and they have looked after me and it didn’t matter what I needed they would do it.

“I can’t praise them enough, I really can’t. They just relaxed me and they are all lovely. The have been well trained and they do things right.

“A look and a smile is all that matters really. You know that they care, you can see it, and it is a kind of love. That is the absolute truth.”

Carefound Home Care has provided Doreen with the confidence she needs to remain in her own home and feel independent - a thing she values very highly.

With offices in Harrogate, Wetherby, and Ripon, Carefound are available to tailor their care around individual clients throughout the district and ensure the people who need care are well looked-after.

Home care manager Lorna Dawber said: “There are completely different levels of care that we provide for.

“We do live-in care and all the way to what Doreen has, which is companion care.

“Because we are not contracted by the council we come in for an hour at minimum. That contact is all it takes to reduce isolation.

“What we do is person-centred, not local authority led. We devise a care plan together and that is built round what I professionally think is best for the client.”

This level of tailor-made care has benefited Doreen enormously, improving her wellbeing and ensuring she doesn’t feel lonely or isolated.

She said: “I can do most things myself now, and they are encouraging you all the time and give you praise when you are improving.

“It is just nice to talk to somebody. It is terribly important.

“I am alone but I am not lonely, and there is a real difference, and it is only their care that has done it.

“There is no doubt that they have helped me get my independence back. Without them here I just wouldn’t have survived. That is easy to say, but it is true.”