According to Carers , an estimated 1.9 billion hours of unpaid care is provided in each year.
As we celebrate National Carers Week this week, many of us are unaware of the tremendous volume of work being quietly completed by others in our community, often without acknowledgement. But at what cost to the wellbeing of our carers?
Carers often feel social isolation and the challenge of always having to ‘be there’ – a problem exacerbated when they live in rural and regional areas.
Take, for example, Mary. Mary has spent the last 10 years caring for her husband who is living with advanced dementia. They live in Warracknabeal, a town of less than 3000 people in rural Victoria.
Although Warracknabeal has access to a memory support nurse, who is highly valued by the community, Mary would also appreciate support from others in a similar situation.
“It is very lonely trying to cope on your own. You need to know that you are not on your own with these problems,”Mary said.
It is for people like Mary that we need to come up with innovative new ways to connect carers – to let them know there are others in the same position, facing the same challenges.
But how do we reduce the tyranny of distance for carers?
Innovative online technologies allow us to do this. Although they do not completely replace the need for face-to-face contact, a virtual network of peer support can make a real difference to the wellbeing of carers.
This is something we are trialling through La Trobe University’s Virtual Dementia Friendly Rural Communities (Verily Connect) project.
Verily Connect incorporates technology including an app and video conferencing to create online links between carers, across 12 rural locations in Victoria, South and New South Wales.
Creating these virtual communities can not only reduce isolation, it can potentially reduce the need for expensive and disruptive residential care, or multiple acute care admissions for people who are living with dementia.
Surely this has to be a win – not only for carers, but for people who are living with dementia.
So, as we celebrate National Carers Week, let’s think about people like Mary, and how we can support her to fulfil her role better.
Because carers need to be cared for too.
Professor Irene Blackberry isdirector of La Trobe University’s John Richards Centre for Rural Ageing Research.