Carers Week Day 1: The front line of the growing carer army

Helping hand: Staff, trustees and student workers at Blackpool Carers Centre

Helping hand: Staff, trustees and student workers at Blackpool Carers Centre

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There are seven million reasons why the illuminated heart on the side of Blackpool Tower will be beating blue from tonight, June 09, 2014.

There are seven million unpaid carers in Britain. One in 10. Three in 10 will become carers at some point.

A carer is someone who, without payment, provides help and support to a parent, partner, child, relative, friend or neighbour who could not manage without their help, due to age, physical or mental illness, substance misuse, dementia or disability.

Each year more than 2.3m people become carers. The figure is set to soar by 3.4m over the next 30 years because of our ageing population, and the rise of a Britain broken by drug and drink misuse, mental illness, social deprivation.

The frontline is right here in Blackpool, a public health blackspot.

Dementia is ticking away like a health timebomb – there are 700,000 people in the UK diagnosed with dementia but many more undetected.

Two thirds live at home, mostly supported by parents, sons, daughters. Blackpool Carers’ Centre has just started a new memory assessment project in partnership with Empowerment to get help to those who may need it at an earlier stage of the condition.

And in Blackpool, there’s another frontline issue – more children and teenagers are stepping in to support parents who misuse alcohol or drugs, some fearful they could be taken into care if word got out.

The Blackpool Carers’ Centre team has an out of hours support service working with families where one or more parents have been identified as having substance misuse problems – but knows many young carers are hidden in plain sight.

Other children help parents with physical or mental health issues, or look after younger (or older) brothers and sisters.

The Blackpool centre helps 3,065 registered carers aged from five to 97 but wants to reach 13,000 more – the hidden army revealed by the Census three years ago. The figure will have risen since.

There are 329 young carers (under 18) registered and 19 more were found at two discos organised this year at Christ the King primary school and Anchorsholme Academy to raise awareness.

Young adult carers between 16 and 18 are twice as likely not to be in education, employment or training. At one young carers’ event in Blackpool a six year old girl confides: “I have to be mummy sometimes.”

The independent local charity, network partner of the national Carers’ Trust, provides a range of age and need-specific services to support and enhance lives of unpaid carers of all ages.

These range from emotional and practical support, consultation, advice sessions, grant applications, one to one work, whole family support, sitting services, respite, dementia awareness training, confidence and coping strategies, footcare, hobbies, trips, outings, activities, youth clubs, residential breaks, even tea dances.

Marginally more women (58 per cent) take on the adult carer role. Just under a million are over 65 – and 65 per cent of those aged 60 to 94 have long term health problems or a 
disability themselves.

Blackpool Carers’ Centre is one of the best and busiest in the land, some of the support services singled out for national press and TV coverage.

Yet the safety net is held together on a shoestring, supported locally by grants, public donations, volunteers, fundraising events, supermarket sponsorship and bag packs, charity shops, social enterprise in the form of a new Wood Hub – and what will soon be a new satellite service on Church Street.

Carers’ week also marks the start, in Blackpool, of a Cash Quest for Carers challenge to businesses, called upon to invest £50 donated by a sponsor in 100 days of fund-raising, with awards for the most innovative idea and the most cash raised.

That starts today, at the Imperial Hotel, at 3pm. The cash raised will fund the next Young Carers’ Champion post, the young adult carer, or carers, appointed to fight for a better deal for young carers in the resort. It’s a real employment opportunity, a paid post preparing for health and social diploma status.

Current Champion, Amy, 19, no surname by request, has cared for her mum since she was 13, after her mum fell ill at 40.

“I never wanted the tag of carer,” Amy admits. “I was in denial. I was just a daughter helping mum.” But a year after turning down all offers of help after school referral at 13, Amy registered code red on the traffic light assessment system used to determine support needs.

Just couldn’t cope.

Today she’s taking a gap year to relinquish her carers’ champion role to a successor and run activities for young carers before heading to university. “I wouldn’t have got there without the carers’ centre support,” she admits.

Chairman of the charity’s trustees, Blackpool police community cohesion sergeant Steve Hodgkins, joined the board after looking into an alleged assault by a 14 year old boy on a teacher at a local high school.

He learned the pupil had lashed out after being woken up at his desk. He had fallen asleep because he had nursed his drunken father through the night, to ensure he didn’t choke on his vomit. He had then got his sisters ready for school, packed their lunch, gone there himself.

“He fell asleep at his desk and flung his arm out, catching the teacher, when he was woken up. The school had a zero tolerance policy so police were called. The more I looked into it the more I realised young carers got a raw deal. Particularly given the pressures in this town.

“It was a wake up call in every sense for me.”

At the other end of the age scale adult carers’ lead officer Dawn Maher admits: “People don’t realise they are carers. It’s a term most hate to use but we can’t come up with a better one. They see themselves as daughters, sisters or brothers and sons or partners or parents looking out for a loved one.

“But it goes way beyond all expectations. We see children looking after parents and also see grandparents, even great-grandparents, looking after children.

“We have a 97 year old who looks after her grandchild.

“There are a lot more carers than we could ever estimate or imagine in Blackpool because of the social issues.

“We need more referrals from GPs. We need to find carers faster.”

Charity chief officer Michelle Smith says earlier intervention is crucial.

“We help more than 3000, we know there are 13,000 more. In fact, I’d say there were double that. And we need to reach them and get help to support them. The cash quest is crucial for funding our Young Carers’ Champion and allied work but the work spans all ages.”

She hopes the blue valentine sent out by Blackpool Tower for national carers’ week serves as a beacon for all carers - and as a reminder of the service to all who can refer carers on: schools, frontline GPs, hospital staff, specialists, community groups, advisors, relatives, friends, neighbours.

“Carers can also refer. If we can’t help we can usually signpost them to others who can. But don’t just think you’re in this alone – because you’re not.”

*To assist financially, or as a volunteer, become a crusader for the charity, refer a carer for help, or join the cash quest for carers, call Blackpool Carers’ Centre on (01253) 393748, or use the contact form on the website www.blackpoolcarers.org. You can follow @blackpoolcarers on Twitter. Or email kay@blackpoolcarers.org or write to Blackpool Carers’ Centre, Norman House, Robson Way, Blackpool FY3 7PP.