'Families become burnt out if they are not provided with support for themselves and their relatives'
After years of working in the care sector and looking after her grandmother, Co Tyrone woman Niamh Nugent realised the most vulnerable in society need extra help. She tells Lisa Smyth why she set up her own caring business
Almost 300,000 people across Northern Ireland care for a loved one living with an illness, disability, mental health condition or as they grow older.
For many, it is a relentless job, with tasks as simple as going to the supermarket, attending appointments or making wellbeing checks throughout the day becoming overwhelming.
Many have to juggle the responsibilities of being a carer with work and family commitments, leaving them drained and overstretched. With limited support available within the wider community, it can be difficult to provide the help required on a daily basis.
Niamh Nugent knows all too well how hard it can be.
Not only has she spent the last 11 years supporting people with a range of issues, including mental health problems, learning disabilities and dementia, but she also helps care for her elderly grandmother.
"My grandmother is a lady of 91 and she amazes me every day with her stories from the past," says the 33-year-old.
"Due to mobility issues, she always requires the support of one person.
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"If an appointment is arranged, that can then increase to two due to her limited mobility. My family is very fortunate as there are a lot of us who live close by and can provide support when needed.
"However, even with a large support network, it can be difficult to arrange and attend appointments due to work and family commitments."
During her time working in the caring field, Niamh witnessed many other families who were not as fortunate.
This is because, in many cases, a person who requires assistance to remain in their own home may only have one person to rely on as a carer.
This creates stress for everyone involved.
"If that person has a full-time job and their own family to support, simple tasks such as supporting their relative to the hairdressers or taking them shopping can become difficult to plan and execute," Niamh says.
"The relationship between the carer and their relative can become strained due to the level of support the individual requires.
"In my experience, families become burnt out if they are not provided with enough support for themselves and their relatives."
It isn't just the person needing assistance who suffers - the impact on carers is also huge.
A recent survey from Carers NI revealed unpaid carers in Northern Ireland were twice as anxious as other people.
Not having enough time to participate in leisure activities, meanwhile, means that one in three unpaid carers here are always or often lonely.
Niamh, from Dungannon, isn't surprised by the findings of the research.
During her time working within the care field, she spotted glaring gaps in the support for families across Northern Ireland.
"Ever increasing demands on the health service and a shrinking budget means there is limited help available for carers," she explains.
"There are packages of care which can provide personal care, basic meal preparation and toileting, but very few packages exist which provide social support.
"Social support is vitally important to maintain wellness.
"The importance of tasks such as attending the hairdresser, going for coffee or going for a walk can be taken for granted.
"In our family we all sit down and discuss who is going to take our grandmother out to her appointments.
"It takes planning and patience, but it's in the best interests of the person to be given choice and as much independence as possible."
As a result of her experiences, Niamh set up Stay Well NI, which provides a range of services to help ease the burden on overstretched carers.
These include helping people to appointments, whether that is accompanying them to vital medical appointments or to the hairdresser, support with meal preparation, shopping, on-call response to personal alarms and even accompanying people to social events.
The business was set up in May and Niamh has been overwhelmed by demand.
"Over the past few years I became frustrated with the lack of services that were available and the lack of support for carers," she says.
"I was also aware of the difficulties my own family had experienced when attempting to find support for my grandmother and that's where the idea for Stay Well NI came from.
"Services provided by health trusts can take a person to an appointment and arrange transport, but it can be a very difficult and lengthy process.
"I can spend time to get to know the person on an individual basis and provide the transport and support to the appointment myself.
"Not only can I provide support to appointments, but I can also accompany a person to church, check on their wellbeing and offer companionship. The possibilities are endless.
"At present I'm mainly providing wellbeing checks, so that families can reduce the number of visits they have to make.
"Instead, they can casually call in with their friend or loved one and they're there socially instead of being there to do something for them.
"This has a beneficial effect on the relationship between the carer and the person who requires support.
"I can also check in on someone while family members are away and provide that peace of mind."
Niamh and her team even help carers and their loved ones attend family gatherings, such as weddings.
"We can either go to the wedding with the person themselves or provide support to the person in their own home depending on the situation," she says.
"Carers need to be able to look after themselves, so that they themselves do not become unwell.
"We can provide carers with respite, so that they can attend their own appointments.
"This respite can be crucial in improving relationships in families and giving carers a better balance within their work and family life.
"Sometimes things can be fraught between the person and their carer. You may have a young adult with learning difficulties and their mum is their full-time carer.
"We can go and take the young person out for a few hours, which may de-escalate tensions.
"The lack of community care packages out there is a massive issue. With the ageing population in particular, there is a delay in people being discharged from hospital for that very reason.
"This results in a lot of relatives taking on the role and it can be very, very difficult for everyone involved. In my experience, at times family members can be given two options: full-time residential nursing care or care from the family in their own home.
"If the person fits the criteria, they will be offered domiciliary support but no specific social support.
"I want to provide the family with support and respite, so that they can maintain their own family life.
"It's better to keep people in their own homes, surrounded by their own belongings and what they know, but only if they have the right support in place.
"Over the last five years I have witnessed a major gap in community services in terms of the availability of providers who provide social support.
"I felt that families within the community had very few options in terms of support to appointments, social support and promoting a relative's independence.
"Families didn't know who to contact or where to turn when attempting to organise support for their relative.
"When a wedding invite is received, it can cause panic in terms of who can look after their relative on that day.
"Planning holidays can seem daunting and unachievable due to the level of support the person requires on a daily basis.
"I believe that Stay Well NI provides a crucial service which families can access on a private basis.
"A gap currently exists within social support services and Staywell NI will bridge that gap."
- Find out more about Stay Well NI by visiting stay-well-ni.business.site or their Facebook page