By Yasmin Noone
The typical profile of an unpaid carer is a 70-year old, unhealthy female suffering under the heavy burden of financial stress, according to the results of a new University of Sydney study.
The research, published yesterday in the Australasian Journal on Ageing, highlights the negative impact that caring has on a carers’ health, lifestyle choices, emotional wellbeing and financial state.
The three-year Nursing and Medical School study found that carers were most likely to be older females caring for their elderly husbands or ageing parents.
Almost 40 per cent were employed and balancing their caring demands with work, and a quarter of research participants had personal health issues.
More than 80 per cent of participants also said they spent over 20 hours a week caring for their elderly relative.
Lead researcher and nursing lecturer, Dr Christina Aggar, said the health and wellbeing needs of carers are not being individually or routinely assessed as they should.
“We need to acknowledge and consider carers’ needs within the referral process for aged care services – via a comprehensive carer assessment,” Dr Aggar said.
“In particular, health care professionals need to consider carers’ health and emotional wellbeing.
“The detrimental aspects of providing care are a global concern because they affect the capacity of carers to maintain their role and level of support and often results in the separation of and institutionalisation of the frail older person.”
The university research team measured the experience of carers in five areas: health, daily schedule, finance, family support and self esteem.
The study, which involved more than 100 families, reported that respite care services were not being utilised as carers often faced financial strain and had to prioritise medication requirements, equipment or other health care ahead of respite care.
Funding is always the issue
The Australian Government supports currently carers through respite, counselling services and some form of financial support. But it also relies heavily on family members to provide aged care to a frail ageing population.
According to the Productivity Commission’s (PC) Caring for Older Australians report released in August 2011, informal carers provide most of the care required to support older people living in their own home.
Family members make up the bulk of the unpaid carer group but friends, neighbours and community groups also chip in. Together, they all help out with an older person’s communication, paperwork, transport and mobility needs, and often assist in providing emotional support.
“Informal carers also play a fundamental role in the coordination and facilitation of formal community care services,” the PC report states.
“According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2009 Survey of Disability Ageing and Carers, there were 352 000 primary carers of people aged 65 years and over.
The report also quotes 2010 Access Economics figures which estimates the informal care provided by unpaid carers to all people in need, including the frail aged, equals more than $40 billion per annum of formal care.
Dr Aggar believes it is not sustainable, especially in the long-term, for the government to rely on unpaid carers to care for most of the nation’s older people. This approach to an ageing population, she said, must therefore be scrutinized.
However, she added, given release of the federal government’s aged care reform package, “we are at a stage where we have an opportunity to implement a process that will detect hidden carers and identify those carers at-risk of poor physical and mental health”.
“Evidence has shown that if we can identify carers earlier, particularly those at-risk, it is possible to reduce the negative impact of caring on their health and well-being and prevent impending crisis such as emergency respite.”
In April this year, the federal government announced it would provide $54.8 million to support carers as part of its Living Longer Living Better aged care reform package.