In Wigan alone, there are around 36,000 people supporting someone living with an illness, disability, or mental health problem.
They are carers, yet many of them don’t realise even it, so unquestioningly devoted are they to helping loved ones. But they deal with the constant, unending stresses of fulfilling the role regardless.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes - who watches the watchmen, asks the common refrain. More to the point in 21st century Britain, who cares for the carers?
The answer? Wigan and Leigh Carers Centre. Established in 2010, the centre is an independent registered charity offering critical support to unpaid carers and vital help to both young and adult carers alike.
To date, it has directly helped over 9,000 carers, specialising in recognising carers’ own needs to ensure that their voices are heard, that they get help with physical and mental well-being, and that they are understood, valued, and supported.
“Caring can be a lot, even for people who aren’t working as well; it’s like a full-time job,” says Gail Byrne, the Strategic Development and Carer Centre Manager. “It’s essential that we find hidden carers - people who don’t recognise that they’re carers - so that they can access help at the right time. Often people come to us at the point where they’ve reached carer crisis, so we’re aiming to identify them before they get to that point.”
With an ageing population and an NHS under pressure as a result of nine years of austerity measures, the requirement for basic care provision is becoming more and more pressing.
Couple that need with the fact that in real terms, we are currently living through the worst squeeze in wages since the Napoleonic wars, and it’s no wonder that more people are taking on caring duties themselves for those who simply couldn’t cope without them. But at what cost?
“The Carers Centre has seen an increase in referrals, with some carers having a dual caring role in more complex cases,” said Gail, who has been with the centre since 2013. “Carers can often be trying to juggle work, bringing a family up, and caring and find themselves unable to continue to work.
“It’s really important that carers get support and advice before it reaches crisis point.”
Offering a range of services, the centre - which works in partnership with Wigan Council local GPs, and other bodies - does everything from befriending services and an outreach programme for those who can’t get to the centre, to counselling, therapy, support groups, welfare advice, and one-to-one support.
“There’s so much pride in what we do,” explains Gail, with the centre employing 17 staff members and working with 53 volunteers. “We have a really good staff who are passionate about what they do and our volunteers do a fantastic job; we couldn’t do without them. They underpin our organisation.”
Recognising that all carers are different, the centre tailors their support on a case-by-case basis. “We’re unique in that carers can come in an see someone and speak to someone - all of our emphasis is on that person,” explains Gail. “Caring can be stressful and impact the whole family. Carers often neglect their own health and well-being because they’re so busy caring for someone else. So that carers can continue to care, it’s crucial carers have a single point of access like the Centre where they can come to for practical and emotional support.”
Already making a huge difference with their work in the community, the centre is far from done. Holding a range of outreach events for Carers Week from June 10 to 16, staff will be out and about offering support for carers across the region.
“The focus is always on the carers’ needs and they can dip in and out for as long as they’re caring,” said Gail. “To have that access is so important.”