There is one group of people in Scotland who are perhaps an unseen front line in protecting the most vulnerable in our communities – unpaid family carers. Focusing on caring duties – be it for a frail elderly person, a parent with dementia, a child with additional needs or an adult with mental health issues– often leaves carers socially isolated. Many have reduced or given up work to care for another, or normally rely on the workplace for social contact but are now at home. 

VOCAL has maintained its services to this valuable group of people across Edinburgh and Midlothian for over 25 years and the Carer Support Team are still working through ‘lockdown’.

Here are some of the factors being highlighted by carers in their conversations with VOCAL’s team in the last few days…..

Telephone calls are longer than usual – and that’s OK

Whether the call is incoming or our team are checking in with carers, the calls are longer than usual and that is a healthy thing. Carers are taking the time to talk though the daily challenges they face caring for a family member with additional needs and the practical steps they can take to support themselves and their cared-for person. But there is also time to talk how they are feeling and what can be done to ensure their own mental and physical well-being.

Routines are changing and it’s a challenge for carers and cared-for

Caring for a child or adult with autism at this time is extremely challenging. Routines have crumbled and coping with any outbursts and confusion is highly stressful. Online peer support networks managed by VOCAL have proved vital at this time. Requests to join closed Facebook groups for advice and sharing experiences are rising dramatically as day centres, peer group meetings and community centres close. The VOCAL team are increasing the time dedicated to these forums.

It’s a fearful time and hard to know what is right to do

Caring for an elderly or severely ill person at home is fraught with fear and guilt. How does a carer ensure access to healthcare, personal care, supplies and support without putting the cared-for person at risk? The feelings of guilt and anxiety are understandable but the VOCAL team are reassuring carers that following national guidelines is the best thing to do and are supporting them to take the practical decisions about how to go about looking after a vulnerable person in their care . Carers sometimes feel that they have fallen into the cracks – they are needed but are not ‘key workers’.

Counselling makes a huge difference

VOCAL has ensured that the carers’ counselling service is still available over the telephone. Ensuring that carers have a voice and can talk through emotions helps build resilience as well as good mental health. VOCAL is preparing for a tide of emotional responses from those who feel fearful, isolated and unable to help the cared-for person, who have lost a loved one in their care, and who are overwhelmed with the intensity of their situation as a carer. Counsellors are making the switch from face to face contact to video link and telephone counselling. This has been welcomed by carers who have found that other support services may have to withdraw.

Money worries are real

Carer poverty is a huge factor. There are a number of benefits that a carer can access depending on individual circumstances and VOCAL team members are supporting carers through the process of claiming and managing finances. This is even more important as the social security system manages great change and is under more pressure than ever as many people face pay cuts or redundancy as a result of COVID 19.

Caring for a person with drug and alcohol addiction while in lockdown is like being in a pressure cooker

The demands of addiction are devastating and those caring for people with an addiction take the brunt of the stress. Current concerns include how the person they care for can continue to access treatment and substitute therapies. VOCAL’s trained team members are supporting carers and ensuring that they have access to advice and services to get them through this period.

Carole Kelly, Lead Officer at VOCAL’s Edinburgh Carers’ Hub, reports that the team (who are working from home) are making the adjustments to telephone support:

“The pressure is definitely on but the team are actively reaching out to clients as well as taking calls from carers new to VOCAL. Every carer’s circumstance is unique and the experience, skills and knowledge of the team are focused on ensuring good outcomes from every communication.”

In considering how to apply this learning to future carer services, Carole adds: “Although seeing a carer face to face can be the most engaging way to offer support, providing a telephone service is vital to ensure ongoing communication. This year we have trialled a telephone counselling service which has proved highly effective and the results of which have helped the counselling team keep the service running throughout the current crisis.

“Developing new online tools is also planned for 2020, resources permitting, and our carers are telling us what will work. Their voice must be heard at this time and VOCAL is listening.”

VOCAL is a charity relying on grants and donations to reach the growing number of carers across Edinburgh and Midlothian. We currently support around 10,000 unpaid carers each year. To donate to our work please go to VOCAL’s website and DONATE.