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1 in 8 Australians providing unpaid care as numbers rise to 2.86 million

You may not think of yourself as one, but you are a carer if you look after a partner, relative or friend who would find it difficult to manage without your support.

The need for carers is at an all-time high with one-in-eight Australians providing informal care and demand for carers doubling supply in some areas, according to the Deloitte Access Economics Report, The Economic Value of Informal Care.

The new report commissioned by Carers Australia has found Australians will provide $60.3 billion in unpaid care this year alone looking after family members and friends who are aged, chronically ill or have a disability.

The report warns of an ever-widening carer gap and points to modelling that shows that by 2025, only 42 per cent of people with a severe disability who are aged over 65 years and not living in residential care will have access to an unpaid family and friend carer.

According to unpaid carer, Helen Johnson, the Report highlights the dilemma that almost all Australians will have to address at some point in their lives.

“Whether everyone knows it or not, all Australians are only a few degrees of separation from a carer, if they are not already themselves caring for a family member or friend. During their lifetime, every Australian has a high chance of either being a carer, knowing a carer or needing a carer,” she said. “I started caring for my son over 21 years ago and in that time the demand for unpaid care has grown considerably, especially with the ageing of the population. This demand is set to continue to increase and community attitudes towards carers must grow alongside.

“Services and supports provided to carers by Federal and State Governments have improved, but more is still needed. The value in Reports like this one is that they bring the amazing value that unpaid carers provide to the country into sharp focus.”

Helen Johnson lives in Traralgon, Victoria and cares for her son, Ben – one of only 600 people worldwide with Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome. Ben was born with this incredibly rare syndrome and was also diagnosed with severe Autism in 1997. Ben’s diagnosis has categorised him as having a severe and profound disability and he is fully dependent on both Helen and her husband 24/7 to help provide full-time care. Sadly, Ben also became a paraplegic in 2009 after an ‘unexplained’ post-operative complication. To date Ben has had 54 surgical procedures, all of them in Melbourne, 180km from the family home. Helen also cared for her father who lived in the family home for 7 years and was fully bed-bound for 2 of those 7 years before passing away from a chronic illness (emphysema & Pulmonary Obstructive Airways Disease – P.O.A.D) in Sept 2010.

In order to provide her family with greater financial stability, Helen also works at Westpac on a part-time basis and greatly values the work flexibility that her employer provides, and that she sorely needs to be able to support Ben when required.

The Report highlights the need for a concerted and sustained policy effort to respond to the needs of 2.86 million Australians who act as informal carers, including 825,000 who are primary providers of unpaid care.

The Report also found that approximately 78,000 children under the age of 15 are required to deliver informal care to family members due to a lack of external support.

CEO of Carers Australia, Ara Cresswell, says, “Carers do a lot of heavy lifting that often goes unrecognised. In fact, the report values the provision of informal care in Australia at more than a billion dollars a week.

“We have an ageing population and an increasing number of people with disabilities, illness and disease who require care at home.”

The Report proposes a number of policy options to reduce the burden on carers and improve support services across Australia’s welfare sector, including:

  • Greater flexibility in working arrangements to accommodate workers’ care responsibilities and employment preferences;
  • Improvement in access to carer support services, such as respite care, to alleviate the impact of caring;
  • Further investigation of carer perceptions of the costs and quality of formal care in order to encourage an optimal mix of formal and informal care provision; and
  • Adapting the formal care sector to better meet the needs of older Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

“This Report allows Carers Australia to quantify the true value of carers to the community while highlighting areas that require focused attention. We are pleased to be working with the Government to develop detailed and robust carer policies for the future,” Ms Cresswell added.

There are serious implications of Australia’s increasingly diverse population for achieving an optimal mix of informal and formal care in the future.

Increasing levels of migration are likely to add to Australia’s existing elderly migrant population whose cultural and linguistic needs may not be currently met in formal care services.

Indeed, studies have shown that older people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds exhibit a significantly lower use of residential aged care, suggesting a preference for care that is sensitive to their cultural needs and preferences (Productivity Commission, 2011).

Further research into how the formal care sector can adapt to groups with different aged care needs may help soften demand for informal care where informal care is deemed the only viable option and identify a better balance of reliance on both formal and informal sectors.

As demonstrated in this report, informal carers provide a significant contribution to the health and wellbeing of Australians in need of support and assistance, the magnitude of which only underscores the impending policy challenges faced by Australia.

Greater recognition and awareness of carer demographics and preferences will ensure that approaches to health, disability and ageing policies are responsive to the needs of carers and care recipients alike, resulting in improvements in welfare for Australia in the future.

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