Belfast Telegraph

Mothers share their stories of life as unpaid carers

by Fiona Rutherford

Two east Belfast women tell their stories in a new booklet highlighting the crucial role played by carers here.

The booklet, issued by Carers Northern Ireland in association with the Equality Commission, urges people to support carers’ rights to have the same chance as anyone else of a full life.

There are currently 185,000 carers in Northern Ireland, carrying out unpaid work to the value of £3.12 billion. It is estimated that the average carer is saving the country £15,260 per year. However, carers themselves are paying a significant personal cost.

Margaret Campbell, Chair of Carers Northern Ireland, said: “Carers give so much to society yet they risk poor health, social exclusion and poverty. Three in five of us will become a carer at some point in our lives, providing unpaid care to someone we know who is ill, frail or disabled. We would not expect to sacrifice our own lives as a result but, all too often, that is what happens.”

Bob Collins, Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission, pledged to continue their work with policy makers to ensure they take on board their duties in relation carers under the legislation.

Laura Collins whose son David, who has autism, OCD and other mental health difficulties, has cared for five members of her family over the past 29 years. “In my particular caring situation, I have had periods where I have been caring for three people at a time. There just weren’t enough hours in the day. I do not want to hit burn-out, but have come close on several occasions.

“Too many carers are spending 24 hours a day in their caring role, and their own well-being and lives are suffering as a result. Services continue to be patchy, underdeveloped and not round the clock.

“In order to be competent carers, we require information, respite, professional support and crisis help. I want to see holistic carer support provided to all carers. Caring is often a full-time job — but with no salary, no holidays, no training and very little support. We need greater recognition and protection.

Emma McDowell cares for her 38 year old son George, who has cerebral palsy. Early on, she gave up her PhD and took him to the Peto Institute in her native Hungary. “We found that conductive education was incredibly successful for George, although it was very hard work for all of us, and meant the family spent long periods of time apart.”

The hardest sacrifice for Mrs McDowell was not being at her mother’s deathbed in Hungary. “When I realised she was dying, I tried frantically to get back to be with her, but social services weren’t able to find any respite cover for George at short notice, and so I couldn’t be there. Back-up in an emergency would make a huge difference to carers’ lives at times of stress.”

She said caring had cost her her career but that it had made her stronger. “I am more assertive, and I engage in public policy debate — I sat on the Civic Forum, for instance, to represent carers’ interests. Yes, in some ways caring has restricted my life, but in other ways it has widened my horizons.”

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