Northern Ireland

Supporting the elderly: The role of Northern Ireland's unpaid carers

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Media captionJudith Baird is one of more than 200,000 unpaid carers across Northern Ireland, as Mervyn Jess reports.

As the bus pulls up outside Kilkeel Day Centre the passengers start filing off - most of them with some assistance from the centre staff.

The elderly men and women all suffer from various stages of dementia but that hasn't put them off coming.

It is estimated that unpaid carers are saving the local economy billions of pounds each year. It is day centres, such as this one in County Down, that offer support to carers.

Bridie McVeigh, who works in the respite unit which is run by Age NI, said that the problems arise when it's time to go home and their guests do not want to leave.

"The centre gives the families who care for them a break. It also takes the older people out of isolation in their homes," she said.

"They can come in here and have fun and a nice hot meal. They're really, really happy. The centre is a very happy place."

However, campaigners have said that not enough is being done by the government to support unpaid carers and provide future care in the community for the next generation of elderly people.

'Dependent'

Among the regulars at the Kilkeel Day Centre is 80-year-old Doreen, who was diagnosed with dementia a year ago.

Her daughter, Judith Baird, juggles caring for her mother during the day along with raising four children.

Image caption Claire Keatinge, Northern Ireland's commissioner for older people. said care workers must be rewarded and supported properly

"She is very, very dependent on us as a family for everything. For washing, food, cleaning her house. She's just not fit to do very much at all and her mobility has gone down as well," she said.

However, Judith added that placing her mother in a residential home was not an option she wanted to consider when the dementia was first diagnosed.

"I would want her to be at home for as long as possible. I realise there may come a time when it just won't be possible for her to be at home but at the moment I really wouldn't want that for her."

Judith is one of more than 200,000 unpaid carers across Northern Ireland, many of them family members.

Nearly a quarter of carers are aged 60 or over. Some recent studies estimate the saving to the local economy by these unpaid carers at about £4bn a year.

Older people in need of medical care usually go into a nursing home, most of which is state-funded. Those in purely residential homes are means-tested and may have to pay for the services on offer.

Duane Farrell, of Age NI, outlined the costs involved.

"Health and social services will pay in the region of £24,000 per annum for somebody with social care needs living in a residential home," he said.

"For somebody living in a nursing care home because they have a higher level of needs or medical needs, they're paying upwards of £30,000 per annum."

'Emphasis on quality'

There have been horror stories told about some care homes, with older people being left slouched in chairs for hours in units that are threadbare and seemingly under-resourced.

Image caption Bridie McVeagh, from Kilkeel Day Centre, said they need more support to care for older people in the community

Claire Keatinge, Northern Ireland's commissioner for older people, said these stories were not the norm, but that not all care homes provide "care of the standard we would all want to see".

"The regulation and inspection system must correct that. It must pick up where there are problems and deal swiftly, effectively and decisively with them," she added.

She also urged more emphasis on the quality of care being provided.

"It is valuable work, which is challenging sometimes but enormously rewarding, and we need to recognise the contribution care workers make by rewarding and supporting them properly," she said.

A recent survey asked unpaid carers, who look after family and friends at home, to outline the top five types of help they needed.

They responded - respite, support, friendship, family help and financial aid.

Bridie McVeigh said the staff in Kilkeel Day Centre get great personal satisfaction from working with those who regularly attend and she encouraged more people to get involved.

"We do need support to help out with these older people in their community. It could just be a call to their door, an arm around them at times or a shake of the hand. Just care really," she said.