At least a million New Zealanders provide this care for someone in their family. For many it’s a 24/7 role.
“They’re tired, burned out, and experiencing long-term wellbeing impacts,” says Carers NZ chief executive Laurie Hilsgen.
Family carers are the last frontline supporting vulnerable people living at home. Their role is one that is vital but taken for granted, she says.
A majority of New Zealand’s family carers are women, most in middle age, and over half have a disability or health condition themselves while assisting at least one other family member who has ongoing support needs. Their unpaid mahi aroha has an annual economic value of at least $10 billion.
Carers NZ and the Carers Alliance of more than 50 national not for profits (including Alzheimers NZ) wrote to Health Minister Andrew Little and Carmel Sepuloni, the Minister of Social Development, before Christmas seeking urgent support and new respite measures for family carers, in anticipation of the omicron surge.
They asked that emergency respite be made available to support those in primary caring roles who were struggling after months of no breaks, or who became ill with Covid-19. Government responded positively, but action has been too slow, Hilsgen says.
“We’re still just talking about what to do. Now omicron is widespread and carers are working harder than ever. They deserve better.”
Before the pandemic, more than 50% of carers said they were able to have publicly-funded respite (time out from caring) weekly, or monthly, or whenever they needed a break. 35% could have breaks several times a year, while the balance had respite only in emergencies.
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, 88% of carers who completed the survey have had less or much less respite. Reasons include disrupted respite services, worker shortages, and doing more directly for friends and family to reduce the risk of virus exposure from workers coming into their homes. Comments by carers responding to the survey about how less respite has affected their wellbeing are sobering, says Hilsgen.
“They show significant suffering.”
Carers NZ and the Carers Alliance have called on the Government, the Ministry of Health, District Health Boards, and ACC to take immediate steps to sustain and support family carers.
Measures could include providing additional respite funding as a pandemic response, better availability and promotion of respite funding flexibility, and increased emergency respite to help carers get through. Ensuring the health, disability, and aged care system responds with sympathy if a carer asks for urgent help in the months ahead is also important but isn’t happening consistently across New Zealand, Hilsgen says.
“For most working New Zealanders, their shifts end and they go home for sleep, food, and to recharge. For many family carers, their shift never ends. No matter how tired they are, they don’t walk away, because someone they care about depends on them. We urgently need to do more to support family carers.”