The long summer may still be with us but, for thousands of present and future baby boomers, there is little sunshine to look forward to. Across the lifecycle, Australians have always provided care and support to family members and friends who have a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, terminal illness or who are frail aged. Often overlooked or taken for granted, carers are crucial lynchpins of strong communities, adding cohesion and creating social capital.
Current estimates by Access Economics indicate that carers save government upwards of $30 billion annually - by providing 1.2 billion hours of care that governments at federal, state and local levels would, in other circumstances, be required to find to ensure adequate and appropriate support for those Australians who need it most.
In a submission to the current House of Representatives Inquiry into the needs of carers, Carers Australia presents the future in straightforward terms: the number of people with disabilities requiring care will increase in the next 50 years as the population ages. This increase is attributed to two primary and very simple factors - people living longer and acquiring disabilities and people with existing disabilities living longer.
The advent of the baby boomers entering their Third Age is affected most notably by medical and scientific advances that enhance life chances and longevity. This, combined with other social factors such as fewer numbers of children per family; increased family breakdown and mobility; more people living alone and increased workforce participation by women, make what might seem longer term questions pressing. We should all pause and ask: who will care for me in my future and will they want to do so?
Although informal care can result in some very tangible benefits for individuals, families and governments the costs can also be high, particularly for those providing the care.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 53.6 per cent of unemployed women who receive the Carer Payment want to work and, of this figure, 47.4 per cent had been employed just prior to commencing caring - suggesting that people who need to provide care find that they have to give up paid work to meet their caring responsibilities.
The loss of skills to the nation’s productivity is exemplified by studies that have found carers opting to working in a role below their skill level because it gave them the flexibility they need to meet their care responsibilities.
Not being able to participate in paid work means less household income. For many households, caring responsibilities also add enormously to overall expenditure. There may be a need to pay for items such as aids and equipment, pharmaceuticals, housing modifications, additional heating and utilities and transport costs.
The economic statistics are stark. The average income for carers was assessed by the ABS in 2004 as more than 25 per cent lower than for non-carers. In addition, carers are over represented in the two lowest household income quintiles. A report produced jointly by Deakin University, Australian Unity and Carers Australia found that, even among carers who work full time, average earnings are $7,200 less per year than the general population.
Caring can also have a negative impact on health and wellbeing. The Cummins report, commissioned as part of the “Australian Unity Wellbeing Index”, showed that carers have the lowest level of health and wellbeing of any group in Australia studied to date. In contrast to the general Australian population, carers are twice as likely to be in poor physical health with at least 40 per cent more likely to suffer from a chronic health condition than the rest of the population. The burden of these chronic diseases comes at a massive financial cost to society.
Lower than average incomes, lower rates of workforce participation and poor health have all been shown to be indicators of social exclusion. Carers often become disconnected from friends, social networks and other family members because of the time and demands involved with caring.
Put these factors together and you can only wonder at the willingness of carers to put themselves on the line and the apparent complacency of past governments to allow them to continue to do so while providing so little support.
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