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A growing 'hidden army' of people in their 80s or older are relied on daily as someone else's main carer, according to new research from Age UK.

It says that one in seven of the UK's "oldest old" – around 417,000 people – now provide some form of unpaid care to family members or friends. More than half of these are providing over 35 hours' care per week, with many of them exhausted, desperate for support and concerned over how long they can carry on. 

The new figures come from an annual representative household survey of 15,000 people aged 60 or over. The results of the survey are multiplied to give an estimated figure for the whole of the UK.

Age UK, the country's largest charity dedicated to helping older people, says that as people live longer the number of unpaid carers in their 80s is set to grow. It has already soared by nearly 40% since 2009, partly due to the UK's ageing population but also because of an increasing shortfall in state support as the care system struggles to keep up.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: "The task of providing care ought to be fairly shared between individuals, families and the state, but as public funding falls further and further behind the growing demand for care, we worry that very old people are being expected to fill the gap.

"They can't do it all on their own and we shouldn't take advantage of their determination to do right by those they love."

Another charity, Carers UK, is also calling for increased Government investment in social care and the NHS to meet the growing need and help alleviate the burden on unpaid carers.

In response, the Department of Health is consulting on ways to improve support for what it calls 'informal carers' –  people who look after family members, friends, neighbours or others because of long-term physical or mental ill health or disability, or care needs related to old age. It has launched an online survey where people can submit their views and ideas, running until June 30th.

The Government has previously stated that caring for others should not be to the detriment of the carer's own health and wellbeing. Community and Social Care Minister Alistair Burt said: "We owe a great deal to the love and determination of older carers.

"I want to make sure the government does everything it can to support them. That is why I am calling on carers and their supporters up and down the country to let us know how we can make a difference."

Help for unpaid carers is already available from social services, the NHS or through the benefits system, but many are unaware of the support they are entitled to. Valuable help and advice is available throiugh the Carers UK website (www.carersuk.org) or by calling its UK Adviceline between 10am and 4pm weekdays on 0808 808 7777.

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