On 1st February, ITV aired a primetime documentary called Who Cares for Our Carers? that examined the cost of caring, both financial and human. It was a personal take on the subject by Lindsey Burrow, an unpaid carer for her husband Rob, a former rugby league player.

This is a subject close to my heart because I lead an extraordinary service here in the South West that cares for carers. I consider myself very fortunate to head up Devon Carers, a free service, funded jointly by Devon County Council and the NHS and delivered by local charity Westbank Community Health and Care, that supports a veritable army of more than 30,000 unpaid carers across the county. Devon Carers is the oldest service of its kind in the South West; last autumn, we celebrated our landmark 25th anniversary. 

A quarter of a century of supporting unpaid carers has given our charity a unique insight into the daily challenges facing carers and expert knowledge of the costs of caring. People often think a ‘Carer’ means a care worker or NHS staff, but the people we support are unpaid carers. By that, we mean people who regularly care for friends or family members in a way that enables them to cope. That could be doing their shopping, checking in to see if they are okay, or providing emotional support. It doesn’t have to be full-time daily personal care, although it often is. Many carers look after someone for more than 50 hours a week, often alongside a full or part-time job. Many others are forced to leave the workplace because of their caring responsibilities.

Unpaid carers across England and Wales underpin the NHS to the tune of an astonishing £162 billion. In Devon alone, that equates to approximately £2.39 billion, or in other words £4,400 every minute!

Devon Carers provides a wide range of support services to those who look after family members or friends because they are ill, frail, or have a disability, mental health or substance misuse problem. In purely financial terms, our service offers a solid return on investment to our commissioners. In 2022-23, we worked with the Carers Trust to create a Social Return on Investment (SROI) calculator, specifically for services like ours. This demonstrated that for every £1 invested into Devon Carers, we deliver a value of £12.69. 

However, the cost of caring is more than financial. It’s a role that takes its toll on the individuals who support friends and family week in and week out. People like Laura Quigly, one of our Carer Ambassadors, who cares for no fewer than five family members in four different places, including her elderly mother and father-in-law, her adult son and daughter, and her husband, who took early retirement in 2023 after years of suffering with depression. 

It took Laura a long time to recognise herself as a ‘Carer’ even though her various caring roles have prevented her from going back to work since 2002. She says she saw herself as ‘the person who looks after people’, and it wasn’t until she burnt out and sought help that she finally realised she was an unpaid carer. Laura says Devon Carers was the first organisation to identify her as such and has since given her lots of practical advice and support, as well as hope and the self-confidence to talk to medical professionals and stand her ground. 

The last census estimated that there are 74,000 carers in Devon, but we believe it’s almost double that. That’s because the questioning in the census was unclear and because there’s so much confusion about the term ‘Carer’ and whom it includes. Also, it can take a long time for people, like Laura, to realise they are a carer and even longer to accept that label. 

As we head into 2024, a documentary like ITV’s will undoubtedly help shine a light on the heavy responsibilities our society places on the shoulders of carers and the need to improve the support they receive, both practically and financially. 

25 years on, Devon Carers provides a whole raft of support services. This financial year saw us continue to grow the number of unique beneficiaries of our service to over 30,000. Of these, we were able to support 1,743 carers to have a break using the Carers Break Fund. Our helpline team dealt with more than 15,000 calls, and we completed more than 3,000 statutory assessments and reviews. We also extended our Hospital Services scheme, and this now covers all 4 acute hospitals in Devon, as well as many Community Hospitals.

We are working hard to streamline our processes and how we handle new referrals and assessment requests to support even more carers and respond to them more quickly. These changes have reduced waiting times for assessments from a few weeks to a few days - no mean achievement. 

Our ambition is to reach even more adults and young people and to do so earlier in their caring journey. If we can get to them with a combination of advice and support when they first receive the diagnosis for the person they care for, generally it prevents them from reaching a crisis point. Early intervention makes an enormous difference to most people.