Devon Carers, a free service by Westbank Community Health and Care, is this month celebrating 25 years of supporting unpaid carers across the county and is planning several events throughout the coming year as part of its landmark anniversary. 

The charity 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. 

Over the last two and a half decades, Westbank’s Devon Carers has grown to be one of the largest charitable organisations in the UK helping adult and young carers; 28,000 adults across the county (excluding Plymouth and Torbay) are currently registered with Devon Carers, and around 2,500 under eighteen-year-olds are registered with Devon Young Carers. 

What started as a small group supporting carers locally in Exminster, near Exeter, has expanded to cover Devon from coast to coast. The service continues to grow with thousands of carers joining each year, on average 200 - 300 per month.  

Andy Hood, Head of Devon Carers says, “There’s been a big increase over the last 25 years in terms of the support services we provide to carers, but we have big ambitions to reach even more adults and young people who help friends and family to cope with a range of health and mobility issues. Another of our goals is to reach people 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.

“Since I became Head of Devon Carers, we have streamlined some of our processes and the way 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. I’m incredibly proud of the work we do to support Devon’s carers and think my team does an amazing job.” 

Andy adds, “Some people think a ‘Carer’ means a care worker or NHS staff, but the people we support are unpaid carers. What do we mean by that? Our definition is someone who does something on a regular or daily basis for a friend or family member that enables them to cope. That can be as simple as doing their shopping, checking in with them regularly to see if they are okay, or providing emotional support. It doesn’t have to be full-time daily personal care, helping people in and out of wheelchairs, although it often is.”

The last census estimated that there are 74,000 carers in Devon, but the real figure is believed to be closer to 130,000 -140,000. That’s because the questioning in the census was unclear, so some carers will have responded incorrectly, and because there’s so much confusion about the term ‘Carer’ and whom it includes. Also, it can take a long time for people to realise they are a carer and longer still to accept that label. 

Andy Hood says, “One of the things that came out significantly through the census this year was the number of unpaid carers who are doing more than 50 hours a week looking after someone, and many are doing a full or part-time job as well. In monetary terms, the work of unpaid carers contributes to the local economy and supports the NHS to the tune of approximately £4,400 a minute.”

Devon Carers is funded jointly by Devon County Council and the NHS. The service, which employs 100 staff, will face a new funding round within the next 12 months and will have to tender for its contract to be renewed. 

Devon Young Carers is funded by DCC, but relies on raising extra funding for specific activities, for example, taking a group to the Young Carers Festival every year. It looks to Rotary Clubs, individual donors and businesses to help cover the cost of such activities that make a real difference to young people who shoulder responsibilities beyond their years.