There are currently 7 million unpaid carers in the UK, but only a small number are receiving the support they need. In April 2015, the Care Act came into effect. This placed a legal duty on local authorities to provide all carers with an assessment of their needs, and put in place services that will protect their health and wellbeing. However, in the context of shrinking local authority budgets, it is yet to be seen how this will happen.

A Carers UK survey found that more than 80% of carers reported a negative impact on their physical and mental health as a result of their caring duties. More than 35% of carers aged 18 to 64 had to cease working because of their caring responsibilities. 64% of carers identified a lack of practical support as a contributing factor to their declining physical and mental health.

Robust and well-organised volunteer programmes can offer valuable support to carers. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to offer respite breaks: this gives carers the opportunity to take some time off to manage their own health and wellbeing. At Volunteering Matters, we recruit and manage volunteers to provide carers with respite breaks for Carers’ Support Bexley.

The Department of Health are currently consulting on the development of a new national carers’ strategy to improve support for carers. This blog post illustrates the important role volunteers can play in helping to meet the health and wellbeing needs of carers. This is something that Volunteering Matters, along with our partners Carers UK and the Carers Trust, are keen to ensure is given full consideration in the design and implementation of the new strategy.

Communications Manager Kate Bermingham spoke to Volunteer Manager David Hedges about the Carers’ Support Bexley project:

Kate: Why did Volunteering Matters set up this programme? 

David: This programme was set up to provide respite for full time carers in Bexley and Greenwich (south east London). Our volunteers provide full time carers with short respite breaks of 4-8 hours or longer breaks of 1-2 weeks. We co-deliver the volunteer programme with Carers Support Bexley, who provide information, support and breaks for carers.

Kate: How long has it been running now, and how many families have benefitted?

David: Volunteering Matters have been working with Carers Support Bexley for 18 years now. We began working together when it became clear that the demand for respite breaks in this area was high.  We are currently supporting around 150 families, but this number can vary from year to year. Typically, our volunteers support more than 100 families every year.

Kate: What are the main challenges you face in making this volunteer programme a success?

David: The emotional trial the volunteers face on a daily basis is the most challenging part of this programme. They spend 35 hours a week in the homes of people who are supporting loved ones with physical disabilities, learning difficulties and terminal illnesses. They have to adapt to each individual environment and its family pressures, as well as coping with the emotional strain of supporting people in very difficult circumstances that they come to care for.

Inevitably, some beneficiaries do pass away every year, and it is often the case that volunteers have formed close relationships with the family and are invited to the funeral. As a volunteer manager I encourage the volunteers to process this and learn from the experience: this is a challenge, but it is one that the volunteers embrace.

Kate: What kind of feedback have you had from the families?

David: Respite is vital for full time carers – it enables them to look after their own health and wellbeing, so that they can return to their caring responsibilities with fresh energy. They greatly appreciate the support of our volunteers and the staff at Carers’ Support Bexley.

The voluntary nature of the support is very important. It helps to build long-lasting bonds, as it is clear that the volunteer is offering their time freely and with no agenda. Volunteers and the families often keep in touch for a long time after their placement ends. The volunteer can become like an extended family member, and often travel back to visit from as far afield as Japan.

Kate: Do you think that these respite breaks are helpful in providing carers with the support they need, in terms of practical assistance, and addressing their own health and wellbeing concerns?

David: Some families have stayed with Carers’ Support Bexley for several years, and this is testament to the enormous value that the service provides for carers. I think the service is particularly effective because it can be tailored to meet the specific needs of each family.

A lot of work goes into assessing both the volunteer/carer and the family, to ensure that there is a good fit. Also, each placement is monitored, so if it doesn’t work out then a replacement can be found. Another positive outcome of this project is that our volunteers come from all over the world (Europe, South America and Asia). The families and the volunteers really benefit from this: it’s a great opportunity to learn about a new culture, learn a few phrases from another language, and gain a new perspective.

Kate: What motivates the volunteers to offer their time freely?

David: Our volunteers are motivated by the desire to spend a year doing something for others. In many cases, the volunteers are keen to develop their skills and learn something new. Many of our volunteers want to learn more about social issues, and the needs of vulnerable people in our society, in order to build a career in the health and social care sector.

Our volunteers frequently tell us that they gain a lot through volunteering. Their confidence grows as they realise that they can have a huge impact on the day-to-day life of vulnerable people.

For example, Louise volunteered at Bexley for a year before going on to study social work. She said: “I love volunteering as I get to make a difference to so many people. It gives them time to complete everyday tasks or visit friends, things they wouldn’t be able to do without my help, and they come back really happy and grateful for the break. But the impact on the people needing support can be huge.

I visit a man with learning difficulties. He never used to talk much, make eye contact or leave the house on his own. I’ve supported him to be confident in everyday tasks like getting money from the cash machine and buying a newspaper. His mum tells me that he now leaves the house alone and has a part-time job – this is amazing.”

Kate: Could this programme be easily replicated in other local authorities across the UK?

David: Absolutely. The track record of Carers Support Bexley speaks for itself – their staff and our volunteers have supported thousands of vulnerable families. If the programme is set up well, following best practice principles, then it can deliver excellent care and support for vulnerable families.