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Informal home care from family and friends

At some time or another in our lives, we all rely on the support of our loved ones -  whether that be family members, friends, or our neighbours.

Key points:

  • There are around 2.8 million informal carers in Australia

  • Informal carers play a vital role in the aged care system

  • Sometimes people don't even realise they are considered an informal carer

Older man with his father and his grandchild
Family and friends that take up the role of informal carer become not only a carer, but an advocate, confidant, nurse, and companion. [Source: iStock]

This support is often called informal care, meaning that your close family and friends are offering their support and assistance to help you with day to day life.

You could ask for this help from your loved ones or people in your family can organise amongst themselves who can lend a hand. 

Informal caring is a really important part of the Australian aged care system. In 2020, Carers Australia estimated that there are 2.8 million informal carers in Australia providing care to their older loved ones or to people with disability. This is a 5.5 percent increase from 2018.

Who are informal carers?

Informal carers are considered people that are close to an older person and provide some form of assistance, care, and support to help with day to day life. It can be a spouse, child or other family member, close friend or neighbour that helps with shopping, takes you to appointments or runs errands. 

It is generally defined as an individual going above and beyond what a normal relationship would require, however informal carers don't often identify themselves as a 'caregiver'.

The Australian Government has previously recognised the important role of informal carers in the aged care industry through the Carer Recognition Act 2010 and over the years changes have been made allow for more flexibility for carers to change their working arrangements to fit in with their caring responsibilities.

Generally, informal carers don't get paid for the care or support they provide to loved ones. However, some informal carers may be eligible for benefits from the Government.

How do informal carers help?

Australia's informal carers can provide a diverse range of services that would be provided through Government funded aged care services. However, these informal carers don't get paid and spend their own time and hard work to help out their older loved ones.

Some of the support you may receive through your family, friends, and neighbours can include:

  • Shopping and meal preparation

  • Help with eating food

  • Supervision in home

  • Use of medical devices for care

  • Wound management care

  • Running errands to places like the bank or pharmacy

  • Day trips and outings such as community group activities or family events

  • Transport and companionship to medical appointments

  • Assistance around the home such as cleaning, washing and gardening

  • Collecting mail and deliveries

  • Taking out/bringing in the bins each week

  • Socialisation

  • Monitoring health and wellbeing

  • Personal care, like showering or dressing

Depending on your relationship with your carer and what sort of help and support you require, your informal carer might provide more intense or high level support.

It is important for both you and your carer to know when it is time to look into accessing alternative supports that will better assist you to remain at home independently and to reduce the impact your care needs have on your loved ones.

Emergency events and informal care

A sudden change in situation can lead to informal care for a brief period of time. This could be due to a fall, being sick or a recently diagnosed health problem.

Sometimes this sudden change of situation can lead to ongoing informal care by family and friends, while others may only have to do it for a brief period of time until the older person has recovered.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a very large impact on last minute informal caring duties throughout the whole community. 

Family and friends were relied on more than ever in Australia to help reduce the impact of social isolation on older Australians as well as helping them to stay out of the public where they were likely to catch the virus during the height of the pandemic.

Even neighbours were stepping up to get to know their older next door neighbours and assist them during a really difficult time through grocery shopping assistance and other helpful chores.

The role of informal caring in home care

Family and friends that take up the role of informal carer become not only a carer, but an advocate, confidant, nurse, coordinator, and companion.

They can act as an additional support along with an older person's formal carers or services.

While there are many advantages for older people to have these informal carers, this care can come at a price for the caregivers and they often provide this care while studying, holding a job or raising a family. 

Primary informal carers are estimated to provide an average of 35.2 hours of care per week to their loved one who requires care. Carers Australia believe that informal carers saved $77.9 billion for their care recipients in 2020.

A study for 2013 on Finnish elderly population found that the availability of informal care dramatically reduced the expenditure on public care and long term care expenditure.

Australia would likely struggle in the health care, aged care, and disability sector if they didn't have such a strong informal carer network, especially as there will be considerable change in the aged care sector over the coming years following the Aged Care Royal Commission's recommendations.

The impact of caregiving on family and friends

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that while unpaid carers were very valuable to society and taking care of family members can be rewarding, there were concerns around the increase of psychological distress, strain, and overall health deterioration on those informal caregivers. 

This issue can be compounded if the informal caregiver is isolated from others in their caring duties or doesn't have a lot of social support in place.

Several studies have suggested that caregivers of people with dementia have biomarkers of poorer health and higher inflammatory burden. 

Carer burnout is common among informal carers, as caring for someone you love can be emotionally and physically draining - even more so if you live with the person you care for.

As a carer it's important to take time for yourself to reduce the likelihood of carer burnout and so that the loved one you're caring for continues to receive quality care.

Respite care services can be really beneficial to both the informal carer and the person receiving care.

It gives you both a break from each other. It's an opportunity for your older loved one to meet new people in respite care in a day centre or in residential care, and for you can take time for yourself, recharge, do any chores you need to do, and visit friends and family without having to worry about the safety of the older loved one.

SANE Australia recommends carers implement strategies in their everyday lives to prevent carer burnout. This can include a healthy diet, exercise, increased social activity, taking time for themself, start a new hobby, get a good night's sleep, and seek professional help if they need it.

Additionally, they say it is important for the informal carer to set clear boundaries with the person they care for, so their relationship can remain amicable. 

In what ways do you support your older loved ones as an informal carer? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

An introduction to Home Care
How to have “the home care talk” with your parents
Why do I need an ACAT/ACAS assessment?

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