Being an unpaid carer is a valuable and rewarding job but it's also a tough one, with many carers juggling multiple responsibilities such as work, family and friends, while making sure their loved one is well looked after.
For many carers, the COVID-19 pandemic adds another level of stress to an already challenging responsibility.
One of the biggest concerns unpaid carers have is keeping loved ones, that may be at greater risk for COVID-19, safe, says Chief Executive Officer of Carers SA, David Militz.
“We have heard a number of reports that carers are not allowing in-home carers into their home because [they are concerned] about exposure to the virus to the vulnerable people that they are caring for,” Mr Militz adds.
During the time when social distancing has become the new normal and many support services have either been put on hold or moved to an online setting, unpaid carers are facing uncertainty about accessing their usual support services, including respite, while caring for someone with a disability.
Carers Australia’s National Policy Manager, Sue Elderton says, “The challenges faced by carers and their impacts are multiple. Accessing the usual sources of respite at a time when carers may need it most is particularly problematic.
Challenges accessing usual support services, such as respite, are in addition to daily tasks like shopping becoming more complex when dealing with low supplies in supermarkets and empty shelves.
Ms Elderton says, “Then there are challenges around shopping, especially for those who put in many hours of care a day. Although supermarkets are working to address some of these problems, and medical supplies from pharmacies can be delivered through Australia Post.”
Mr Militz says that these challenges may increase the load of caring on unpaid family carers and other informal carers which may impact a carers mental health.
“[The pressures] may not increase straight away...[but] as the physical distancing, the social distancing and people isolating within their homes continues, the pressure and the stress will gradually increase.”
An unpaid carer's mental health may also be impacted by the social isolation and physical distancing requirements put in place to slow the spread of the virus.
According to Mr Militz this can create issues with managing their role as a carer and their ability to get some relief or discuss any challenges with their role.
“Most people are isolated, and that isolation is a challenge for unpaid family carers because they are normally able to get out and shop and do a range of things.
“Carers often use their peers or outings with their peers not only as a way to release the pressure but to share concerns and successes … the longer it goes without having that ability to connect face to face carers will have, like everyone in the community, struggles with how they are able to manage their role as an unpaid family carer.”
During these challenging times, it is important that parents and informal carers of someone with a disability are looking after themselves physically and mentally.
One of the ways that informal carers can look after themselves is to reach out and stay connected with those around them, says Scott Samson, spokesperson for Wellways, a not-for-profit mental health and disability support organisation.
“Wellways recognises the challenges the government’s 'stay at home' orders have had on Australia’s 2.7 million unpaid, informal carers. Social isolation, job security and personal health concerns all contribute to the growing fear and anxiety experienced by carers and parents as our communities become more familiar with the risks we face with COVID-19.”
Ms Elderton, adds, “The effect of the coronavirus on living conditions and financial security will impact a great many people but are likely to be particularly pronounced for the aged and people with disability (including psychosocial disability).
“They will need all the help they can get from government and services, but also from their extended families, from neighbours and from friends.”
Mr Militz says that despite the challenges being faced during this unprecedented time, there is still formal support for unpaid carers and that challenges are normal and can be expected.
Through services such as Carers Gateway, unpaid carers can still access support services, counselling or emergency respite.
Mr Militz says, “It’s okay to expect that this time might be challenging and it might be stressful for people, and it is okay that that will happen... and it’s okay for people to reach out if they need it.
“We are still able to connect people to one on one supports [or] group supports albeit in different ways. We are also able to secure emergency respite for people who need it.”
On top of reaching out to formal support services, Mr Militz says that unpaid carers should take time to look after their own health and wellbeing, both physical and mental. This could be by engaging in activities, where possible, away from home where the pressure may be building.
Mr Militiz adds that COVID-19 and the challenges being faced by carers may impact a carers mental health. He suggests that seeking support is one of the best ways to combat this.
“If people are feeling stressed or concerned, there are your usual avenues like your GP, Lifeline if it is acute. But for ongoing support, it is a good place to start to connect to the new carer services happening across the country.”
Talking Disabilities tips for looking after yourself during COVID-19
Stay connected with your friends or family, online or over the phone.
Where possible, stick to a routine. This means eating properly, getting plenty of sleep, and setting work hours.
Get some physical activity.
Limit the amount of news and social media information you access about COVID-19 if you need to.
Reach out if you need help.
Carers Australia and Carer Gateway, who you can call Monday to Friday between 8am and 5pm on 1800 422 737, have collected a range of resources and information to assist carers in their caring role during COVID-19.
You can visit our dedicated COVID-19 information page for the latest updates on how COVID-19 is impacting the disability sector.
What are you doing to support yourself through COVID-19? Tell us in the comments below or email us at [email protected].