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This Carers Week, George Appleton, Head of Policy at Care England, reflects on the importance of unpaid carers and why policymakers should be interested in unpaid care.

Carers Week is an annual campaign to raise awareness of caring, highlight the challenges unpaid carers face and recognise the contribution they make to families and communities throughout the UK.

Care England, a registered charity, is the leading representative body for small, medium and large providers in England. Our aim is to create an environment in which care providers can continue to deliver and develop the high-quality care that communities require and deserve.

As part of our work, it is vital to appreciate the role unpaid carers play in supporting the adult social care sector, our workforce and the wider population.

As many will appreciate, the UK’s population is ageing. Understanding why our population is ageing and the consequential challenges this presents is critical for all those involved within the sector, ranging from national government to care providers themselves, as it is essential for understanding what the future demand and supply of care services will need to look like.

The primary driver of the challenges the sector currently faces is a result of increased demand for care. Demand is being driven by the increasing number of people living longer, as a result of improvements in life expectancy and reduced fertility rates ballooning the older age cohorts, which is, in turn, driving up the total number of people with a physical disability and other vulnerable people who are more likely to require some form of care and support.

Independent care providers face an unprecedented number of challenges, ranging from financial pressures to recruitment and retention issues. Although bodies such as Care England continue to play a vital role in creating visibility around these issues and striving to deliver tangible solutions to care providers to ensure they can provide quality and accessible care, the unpaid care sector plays a vital role in supporting the sustainability of the sector, but the long-term sustainability of the unpaid care sector is also under pressure.

From a demographic perspective, fertility levels in the UK are decreasing, meaning that those now in receipt of care typically have smaller families and therefore a smaller network of people to rely on to provide care. In conjunction with this, there has also been an increase in childlessness. Approximately, one in five British women currently reach age 45 with no biological children, again, reducing the immediate network of people able to provide care.

However, the reduction in fertility doesn’t necessarily mean a reduction in support for those in old age. The improvements in old age mortality mean that increased survival of spouses and siblings has actually added to the support networks of older people. Research indicates that a married older person has a significantly lower risk of being admitted into a residential or nursing home as spousal support is the first source of caregiving.

This picture is complicated by the changes in family structures and relationships. For example, the number of divorces in England and Wales saw its largest percentage increase in nearly 50 years in 2019. Evidence suggests that widowed, divorced, and never married adults have a high risk of long-term care admission. It is also now uncommon to live with multiple generations of a family in the same household. In the context of old age support, in the 19th century, there were a high number of older individuals living with a child, compared to a relatively low number now.

As a final complexity, one of the most consistent findings across research is that women provide more family care than men; female caregivers provide more hours of care and are more likely to provide personal assistance. Given the continuing rise of female participation in the labour market, this has naturally produced concerns about the number of people available to provide family support.

The issues represent a small but illustrative picture of how complex workforce demographics are. As we celebrate Carers Week this year, it is incumbent on policymakers to recognise the vital role unpaid carers play in the lives of millions of people every day, but also their vital contribution to helping support the care sector more broadly. Without central aid to the unpaid care sector, the issues the adult social care sector, as a whole faces, will only be exacerbated.

Care England will continue to work with the government and wider national stakeholders to tackle the issues currently within the adult social care sector and want to work with all system partners to get it right, for all.