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10 September 2009 Edition

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Care has no currency but deserves just reward

Nuncie Murphy: ‘What carers get is just a substitute for unemployment benefit’

Nuncie Murphy: ‘What carers get is just a substitute for unemployment benefit’

THE Carers’ Association is a national voluntary body founded in 1987 to provide training and emotional support for family carers while at the same time highlighting the immense contribution carers make to Irish society. These people’s contribution, in terms of providing high-standard care to elderly, ill or disabled family members is notoriously undervalued, and was even less recognised before the establishment of the Carers’ Association.
NUNCIE MURPHY is Centre manager for the Waterford branch of the association. She talks to ELLA O’DWYER about the background of the organisation and the battle to have carers properly acknowledged and supported.

“IT WAS the carers doing the work in the home who set up the association in 1987 in the first place,” Nuncie explains. “They got together and started discussing the role of caring.
“The focus was on getting a better situation for themselves, so they started lobbying the Government for recognition of the work carers do and the caring role in general.
“All along, the carers were supporting the health system and doing it on a voluntary basis. But they were getting no recognition and absolutely no value was placed on their work.”
While there are financial allowances for carers, they resemble nothing like a wage. In fact, it’s a no-win situation for the carer. If they enlisted as unemployed they’d get the equivalent of the dole; if they undertake the work of the state and take responsibility for its most vulnerable citizens, they’re basically expected to do it for free. There’s the Carer’s Benefit, amounting to a two-year payment of €221.20 claimed on PRSI contributions. Then there’s the Carer’s Allowance, a means-tested payment of €222.50 per week and people on certain Social Welfare payments like Widow’s or Widower’s Pension, state pension or the One Parent Family payment may be entitled to half of that rate (‘the Half-Rate’) amounting to a €100 top-up on their Social Welfare allowance per week.
“I’m hesitant to say that they get payment,” Nuncie says, “because one would think they were getting paid for their caring work. What they get is just a substitute for unemployment benefit.
“If they were unemployed they would get a Job Seeker’s Allowance, amounting to €204 per week. But in actual fact what the carers get instead from the Social Welfare is the Carer’s Allowance if they’re caring full-time. It’s really only keeping people off the poverty line.”
The ‘half-rate’ allowance (introduced in 2007) now looks set to be taken away.
“In September 2007, the Government granted what’s called the ‘half-rate’ allowance for carers. That was the first time the Government ever really did anything to recognise the carers. But the half-rate payment is now being threatened. It was threatened before the Emergency Budget in the beginning of the year and they’re actually thinking of cutting it in the ‘Bord Snip’ report. They’re thinking of withdrawing the payment in a phased manner over five years and new applicants for the payment are to be denied it, while those who have it would have it taken off them.
“It’s not feasible to survive on that kind of money carers get. When you’re caring for somebody everything is multiplied: the heating in the house, the water and even the food because people who are ill may need special foods.”
Nuncie Murphy is centre manager for the Waterford branch of The Carers’ Association.
“I have a staff of 20 people in all and incorporated in that is a Community Employment supervisor. We train people to provide the care that the full-time carer does for a number of hours per week to give the prime carer respite. It’s to give the family carer a break.
“What we do first is patient handling training with a training organisation here in town. That’s the first thing they must learn before they go into a home; they must know how to lift a patient safely.
“We go in and assess the house. If we find that there’s patient handling needed in any home then two workers have to go in and do it. Yet the family carer, all along, is there doing it by themselves all on their own. We try and provide five hours’ care for each family per week. If we give more, then fewer families will get that help.
“Our carers may take a morning or afternoon with a family or come in one hour per day to make sure the person has heating, food and the basics.”
As part of the Towards Ireland 2016 social partnership agreement there was to be a National Carers’ Strategy put in place, but that was scrapped earlier this year.
“The Carers’ Strategy has been taken off the table, for the moment at least, due to the recession. But we still want a needs assessment of carers done so that everything would be in place for when the economy picks up again because every carer’s needs are different. Someone looking after a child with special needs is in a different predicament than someone looking after a person who is terminally ill, for instance. All that preparatory work could be done for when finance is available to put the resources in place.”
Carers most often are women but there are many male and child carers too.
“Women are very often the carers but many men take on the role too. And child carers are harder to identify and get acquainted with. If a parent becomes ill, the child will automatically take on the role. It’s role reversal – the child looking after the parent. If it’s a burden on the child and prevents them from doing what children do then it can be unhealthy.”
There’s an estimated 160,000 carers in Irish homes. Only 43,569 of them get the Carer’s Allowance. These workers are saving the country hundreds of millions of euros. They work 24/7 because at no point can they take their mind off their charge. Whether on holiday, at the shops or at home doing the caring, the dependant will always be on the carer’s mind.
Carers remain amongst the least-appreciated members of the workforce and certainly the least rewarded – another poor reflection on the Government’s attitude to the most vulnerable in society.
In Ireland, there has always been a tradition of caring for the elderly, ill or disabled in the home. But the Carers’ Association has identified an element of risk to the carer’s own health while giving round-the-clock support to their loved one. Pure physical exhaustion is just one inevitable side effect of non-stop caring and the respite breaks – even of just a few hours a week – are essential to the well-being of all concerned. 
While caring is often unconditional, it at the very least deserves recognition. When caring in the home takes on the job of Government it certainly deserves reward.

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