The average person in Northern Ireland is more likely to be an unpaid carer than a home-owner, according to new report.
The startling statistic comes on Carers Rights Day, after joint analysis from the Universities of Sheffield and Birmingham suggested that 66% of adults in Northern Ireland provide unpaid care for a loved one, compared to just 61% who own their own home.
The figures released today by Carers UK also indicate that for many individuals, the burden of caring for an older, disabled or seriously ill relative is one that they often have to juggle around their working life.
The analysis shows that on average, people in Northern Ireland have a 50:50 chance of being a carer at 47 years old, well below the average retirement age.
Women in Northern Ireland can expect to take on caring responsibilities up to nine years earlier than men.
Half of women here will be a carer by the age of 43 compared to half of men who can expect to care at the age of 52.
The consequences of these caring responsibilities are pronounced, with a previous study by the charity revealing that of those who had caring responsibilities of more than 50 hours per week, almost 49% reported that their finances had been negatively affected.
Some 52% had suffered poorer physical health and 77% were suffering from stress or anxiety as a result of missing out.
Women are particularly affected, with the study showing that in Northern Ireland, 69% of women carers are unpaid while 62% of men are unpaid.
The combined conclusion of the figures is that women are far more likely to care during their working life, with one of the recommendations from Carers NI being that employers do more to "support women to return to work and to stay in work by adopting flexible working practices and a right of five to 10 days of paid care leave".
Each year around one in five people across the UK will provide care for a vulnerable relative.
The figure represents 6,000 people becoming unpaid carers each and every day.
Responding to the report, Clare-Anne Magee, head of Carers NI, said: "Many of us don't expect to become an unpaid carer but the reality is the majority of us in Northern Ireland will do it in our lifetimes.
"While we can't predict when someone will care - it could happen overnight through an accident or sudden illness or it can creep up over time through a degenerative condition or increasing frailty - we should be doing more as a society to ensure people are better prepared for caring and can access the information and support they need.
"We need to see action from Government, statutory bodies, employers, our public and private services and communities to help us prepare and plan for caring in our future. Carers NI is urging the next government, both locally and at Westminster, to prioritise long-term investment in our social care system so that thousands of people caring for loved ones in Northern Ireland can continue to do so without putting their own lives on hold or their own health at risk."
Joanna Ireland’s life was “put on hold” after she had to assume caring responsibilities for her daughter Hannah (21), who has autism and severe learning difficulties.
The unpaid carer from Newtownabbey had a twin girl and boy with her husband David, now 56, and was 38 when she welcomed Hannah into her life.
After taking a career break from her job with the Civil Service, the now 59-year-old felt incapable of returning because caring for her daughter left her spread “so thin”.
“Things are thrown on carers without much thought about how their life might suffer,” Joanna said.
“It also seems to fall to daughters and women more than sons.
“When my career break finished, I effectively retired. I would have liked to have gone back.
“My pension is gone now and I also have the feeling of ‘What could you have achieved?’
“We do own our own home, but if you don’t have savings and you have to give up work, the house usually has to be sold before you get any other help.
“We need some recognition from the Government that we are doing them a favour. (Carer’s Allowance) is less than Jobseeker’s Allowance at £66.15 a week, caring over 35 hours.”