My spouse has had to rely on me for years. Does that make me a carer?
It is not how many hours of care you provide, but the extent of the impact that such a role has on your own quality of life that we need to consider. What matters is whether you are able to fulfil that role without it proving detrimental to either yourself or the person you are looking after. Regardless of the nature of the relationship, if you are providing substantial and regular care, it may be wise to have your needs as a carer assessed by a professional (a social worker, for example). What you are entitled to in terms of support will vary from country to country, but in England and Wales carers may be entitled to have their own needs as carers assessed by their local authority. Though the person you look after is likely to benefit from any steps taken to support you as their carer, the focus in a carer’s assessment is the risk to you if continuing in that role is difficult for you, and you don’t get the necessary help to enable you to continue. Sometimes the person being cared for doesn’t want anyone else to become involved, but a carer’s assessment can be requested totally independently of the cared-for person’s needs or wishes.
However, the fact that someone may have been assessed as needing help in order to care for someone without it being detrimental to their own health or quality of life does not mean that this then has to be provided. As public spending is capped, the provision of support is generally restricted to those situations where the need is considered ‘critical’ – that is, where the situation will break down unless something is done. But even in less critical situations, a carer’s assessment may still have beneficial outcomes – perhaps by raising awareness of support networks not previously known about, or through nothing more than the validating of the effort put in. While help and support are available to carers in many areas (through support groups, drop-in centres, online forums and so on) and their right to an assessment of their own needs is now enshrined in law in some areas, it may be the case that some people who could derive benefit from these provisions do not do so because they don’t perceive themselves as carers. So, for example, you may be looking after your spouse because yours has always been a supportive relationship and you think of yourself as a partner, rather than a carer. The point is, you can consider yourself to be both.
Dr Sue Thompson