Carers should 'get flexible hours' - health secretary

Hands of an elderly person Jeremy Hunt said carers were currently in a "lose-lose situation"

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The UK faces a "lose-lose situation" unless workers who care for elderly parents are offered flexible working hours, the health secretary has said.

Jeremy Hunt said an ageing population and a "dementia time bomb" meant helping carers stay in work was an "economic necessity" for the country.

But he said too few employers currently offer carers flexible work options.

Meanwhile, a report has warned England is facing a shortfall in the number of people able to give vital unpaid care.

Mr Hunt said many workers doubled as carers for people with dementia and, with the number of sufferers expected to rise from about 800,000 now to more than a million by the end of the decade, employers must help carers stay in work.

'Good for business'

"Too many people feel unable to combine caring for a family member with working - this will only get worse as we face the consequences of a dementia time bomb," Mr Hunt said.

"We know that supporting flexible working for parents is good for business and good for the economy - it is time that the same was recognised for carers.

'Can't cope'

Council worker Barbara Chapman, from Saffron Walden in Essex, cares for her elderly father, who has lived with her since he suffered two strokes.

"I have always worked and my current job is 45 miles away from home," she says.

"Why can't the government introduce a salary sacrifice scheme to help provide carers for elderly people?

"I have interrupted sleep, getting up at 05:15 on weekdays so I can get dad washed, dressed and fed.

"My brother covers the lunch hour and I pay for care in the afternoon to ensure he is only left for two to three hours.

"I would like to pay for more care but the £14-an-hour cost is more than I get paid myself.

"I do work flexi-time and from home for a large borough council but I can no longer cope with the commuting or cost and need to find a job nearer home. "

"By encouraging employers to do more we can build a stronger economy in a fairer society.

"Supporting carers is an economic necessity - leaving them to balance work and care creates a lose-lose situation for everyone."

He said the UK could not afford to lose experienced workers who double as carers from the workforce.

The Work and Families Act 2006 gives carers the right to request changes to their working patterns to better manage their caring.

Employers can only reject such requests based on reasons listed in the act, most of which relate to negative effect on the business.

But Mr Hunt said a cultural change was needed among employers, saying carers should get the same flexible working opportunities as parents with young children.

Meanwhile, research by the London School of Economics (LSE) suggested a gap between the number of frail elderly people in need of care and those able to provide it free would begin to become evident in England by 2017.

By 2032, 160,000 elderly people could be left without the support they need, the researchers predicted.

LSE used population projections and survey data to compile the figures.

An estimated 675,000 older people currently rely on unpaid carers - mainly their children - as they fall outside the state support system, which is available to the poorest.

'Stressed staff'

Flexible working options

  • Flexi-time (choosing when to do some or all of your hours)
  • Home working or tele-working (some or all work done away from work)
  • Job sharing
  • Part-time working
  • Term-time working
  • Shift-swapping or self-rostering (Employees agree shifts among themselves)
  • Staggered hours (Employees have various starting and finishing times)
  • Compressed hours (Employees work their total hours over fewer working days)
  • Annualised hours (Working hours are calculated over a whole year and then split into "fixed shifts" and "reserve shifts" which can be agreed on a more flexible basis)

Source: Carers UK

Carers UK chief executive Helena Herklots said the problem could have a profound impact on society.

"In addition to the personal costs to families, the costs will be felt across society and public services - more and more older people admitted to hospitals needing avoidable emergency care, businesses coping with stressed staff trying to care alongside work and the economy suffering as increasing numbers of workers are forced to quit work to care," she said.

Age UK charity director Michelle Mitchell added: "These projections once again underline the huge importance of ending the crisis in social care."

The 2011 census revealed that, at the time of the survey, 5.8m people in England and Wales provided some level of unpaid care for disabled, sick or elderly relatives - and 2.1m of those provided more than 20 hours of care per week.

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