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Pushed to the brink: financial pressure on unpaid carers unsustainable

by Fiona Collie 11 March 2022

“I am anxious & scared of what our living costs will be in the coming months. I’m unable to sleep and worried about surviving” (an unpaid carer, February 2022).

Almost half (47%) of unpaid carers are currently unable to manage their monthly expenses, the latest research by Carers NI has revealed. 

These results from 103 carers in Northern Ireland were part of a UK-wide survey of 3,300 unpaid carers carried out by Carers UK, and Carers NI.

96% of carers have already seen their energy bills increase and nearly half (48%) worry that oncoming increases in energy bills and other costs of living will negatively affect their own physical and mental health or that of the person they care for. Many said they were already having to take difficult steps to manage their monthly expenses:  

  • 59% have cut back on heating
  • 6% have already fallen into arrears with their energy bills

In the months ahead:

  • 44% thought that they would not be able to heat their home to a safe level.
  • 41% are worried they will have to use a foodbank.

The findings come as Carers NI, as part of Carers UK, launches a Cost of Living campaign.

Unpaid carers often face additional costs associated with needing to keep those they care for safe, providing extra care, nutrition, and support. It is common to have higher energy costs when caring for someone who is unwell or frail, to keep them warm, and to help manage their condition.

Special equipment may be needed which can be costly to run and they may have higher food bills because of nutritional requirements. Transport costs can also be higher because the person cared for is less able to walk or needs to be accompanied to many different medical appointments.

Our research has found that almost two thirds of carers were spending their own money on care or support services or on products for the person they care for.  46% are spending more on supplies to keep the person safe such as PPE, 34% are spending more on supplies such as incontinence pads and 17% are spending more on adaptations or medical devices.

One carer who responded to the survey commented:

“Our son relies on life saving equipment which must be constant and available at all times- i.e., a hospital pressure mattress, an oxygen nebulizer, suction hoist, air conditioning, heating and so on.”

Another said:

“Mum is bedbound with advanced Parkinson's so she needs the house to be quite warm especially when she is being bed-bathed, etc. but we can't afford to keep the heating turned up high.”

Nearly two third (62%) are worried that further increases in energy bills will lead to significant financial hardship and nearly all (81%) are worried or extremely worried about how they will manage expenses if costs keep increasing

The cost of living has been increasing for everyone across the UK since early 2021, but in December 2021 inflation reached its highest recorded level since 1992 at 5.2%. The Bank of England has predicted it will reach 7.25% in April. Carers are more likely to be in financially precarious situations and less able to cope with these additional costs.

Richard Meade, Director of Carers NI, said: 

We are seeing unprecedented levels of stress and financial worries piled on unpaid carers. Many were already struggling to manage their monthly expenses before the soaring energy prices and inflation increasing the price of essentials. Now more than half of carers are currently unable to manage their monthly expenses and the majority (85%) think they will not be able to manage if costs keep increasing.

“Many are using what savings they have, credit cards, being pushed into debt and cutting back on essentials to keep the person they care for warm and healthy. They are extremely anxious about how they are going to continue to manage. More than half of carers think the rising energy costs will impact on their health and the health of the person they care for, storing up problems for the future.

“Carers are propping up our health and care system at a huge cost to their own personal health, finances and ability to stay in work. Now the picture is even bleaker, with increasing costs forcing them to cut back on food, on heat, and more than ever are worried that they will be pushed into unsustainable debt.

“There is an urgent need for targeted support for unpaid carers now. Thousands more are being pushed into poverty, and many cares already in poverty will struggle and face even greater financial hardship.  That will have a lasting impact on their finances and quality of life.”

To ensure carers are supported during this extremely difficult time, Carers NI, as part of Carers UK, is calling on the UK Government to immediately extend the Warm Home Discount scheme to ensure that it include carers. This is in recognition of the additional energy costs often faced by unpaid carers.

In addition, the Northern Ireland Executive should:

  • As part of welfare mitigations review, introduce a Carer’s Allowance Supplement for carers in receipt in Carer’s Allowance, similar to that delivered in Scotland. In advance of such a payment being established, provide an interim payment to carers.
  • Extend the Energy Payment Support Scheme to individuals in receipt of Carer’s Allowance and ensure that information is provided to carers about other schemes such as the Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme and accessing advice and support.
  • Seek to improve Carer’s Allowance in the interim including:
    • increasing in line with current inflation predictions for April 2022. Carer’s Allowance is set to rise by only 3.1% in April 2022, while inflation (CPI) is expected to reach 7.25%.
    • increasing the qualifying earnings limit for claiming Carer’s Allowance to ensure that carers are able to earn at least 16 hours at the national living wage and that this increases as the NLW rises. This should be an interim step to align instead with the real living wage.
  • Make available hardship funding for carers, including, for example, ringfencing part of the Finance Support Service Discretionary Fund and providing these as grants.

A full list of recommendations is available in our briefing for Northern Ireland “Under Pressure: Caring and the cost-of-living crisis in Northern Ireland”.  Also available is a UK wide briefing, both of which can be downloaded below.

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