Carers in 2020
11 November 2020
This year has been tough. Australians have faced the Black Summer of bushfires, floods and of course the virus. It's often said we're all in this together when we're not. This virus has exposed fault lines in society, and the most vulnerable Australians are falling through the cracks—Australians most at risk, struggling before the virus and not helped by the government's response.
Through COVID-19, unpaid carers of children with disability, frail elderly parents or partners with chronic and complex health problems have taken on more responsibility as formal support falls away and wait times grow. Carers are ordinary people, people like you and me, helping someone they love. As my mum says, 'You don't sign up to be a carer. You do it, because you love them.' They're fearful of this virus and its risks to their loved ones, particularly frail elderly parents. They're struggling to pay the bills as costs climb and they're forced to cut their hours or leave work altogether because of their growing caring responsibilities.
It's estimated there are close to 906,000 primary carers providing an average of almost 35 hours of care per week. That's almost a million Australians providing 35 hours of care per week. The value of that informal care across Australia is estimated to be close to $78 billion. That is the replacement value of that care they're providing. Yet, at the same time, the government's financial support for carers is only a tiny fraction of this amount. It's no surprise then that so many carers I've heard from feel invisible and overlooked by the government. They don't do this because they're seeking recognition or acknowledgement, but they do need to be treated with dignity and respect and be given the proper support to provide care to their loved ones.
In the lead-up to the budget, I heard from carers and advocacy groups across Australia about the impact of COVID-19. The feedback was worrying. Carers were expressing their concerns at the toll taken on their physical health, mental health and financial wellbeing throughout COVID. Most carers across Australia are women, many of them are in their 50s and most of them have their own health or financial problems to deal with on top of their caring responsibilities. This has been borne out in a survey of carers, which ran from April to July, conducted by Carers NSW. It backs up these views. It found nearly half of the respondents were experiencing a high or very high level of psychological distress, and one in three felt highly socially isolated. Caring is a lonely responsibility; it leaves people isolated, cut off from friends and family and other support, especially during COVID.
One in three carers said they never get time out from their caring responsibilities, ever—it's 24/7; it's around the clock, whether it's for a child with a disability, a frail elderly parent or someone with a major mental health problem who is at risk—and only half of the respondents have enough time to keep on top of their other responsibilities. My friend Bev is a carer who is looking after her husband Steve, who has young onset Alzheimer's. He's awake through the night, and needs constant reassurance and support to know that he's safe and that he's okay at home.
Critically, the Carers NSW survey found many carers are experiencing difficulty getting information. Worryingly, up to one in three carers had found it difficult to get information about services or to organise services to support the person they care for. It's hard enough outside of COVID, but in the middle of a global pandemic it has become even worse for carers trying to access the critical practical support they need each day.
This survey result goes to the heart of the government's measures: one in four carers reported spending more money than they made in the last 12 months. That many carers are going backwards financially is disturbing. The small amount of additional support provided to carers in the budget—two payments of $250, spread over six months—isn't enough. Many carer payment recipients are of working age and rely on part-time work to support themselves, and, as I've said, they've lost work due to increased caring responsibilities and the economic downturn.
Minister, my question to you is, given the toll on carers, will the government provide additional financial support to carer payment recipients as a matter of urgency; address the shortages in respite care for carers desperate for a break; consider ways to reduce barriers to carers accessing help through the carer gateway, which was intended to enhance, not hinder, support; and consider performance targets for the gateway that focus on quality and carer satisfaction, not just the number of people accessing the gateway? Minister, in the middle of a recession and a global pandemic, carers and those living with a disability deserve better from you and this government. They feel invisible and overlooked. They deserve compassion and consideration.