Unpaid carers 'are saving Northern Ireland's economy £16 million every week'
UNPAID carers in Northern Ireland are saving the government a whopping £16 million a week in wages alone, new figures show.
Research for Carers UK, released to coincide with National Carers Week, estimates that there are now more than 220,000 carers in Northern Ireland (of whom 17,500 are caring for a family member or friend with a mental illness), including 30,000 who are under 16.
And the charity places carers' overall economic contribution at £4.6 billion a year - broadly similar to the entire 2016/2017 Stormont health budget.
A carer is defined as someone who provides unpaid care and support to a family member or friend who has a disability, illness, mental health problem or who needs extra help as they grow older.
The charity's report says that 35 per cent of those caring for someone else say they themselves are always or often lonely.
That figure is seven times higher than the general population, according to the research from a survey of 8,096 carers and former carers, most of whom provide more than 50 hours of care a week.
It says loneliness is caused by a lack of time or money for leisure activities, along with the stigma of being a carer.
The report also estimates there could be up to 8.8 million unpaid adult carers in the UK - up from 6.3 million estimated in the 2011 census.
Helen Walker, Carers UK chief executive, said: "With as many as one in six adults in the UK now taking on an unpaid caring role it is high time our society recognises and values the crucial support they provide.
"Many unpaid carers struggle alone without support. If we are to combat the loneliness epidemic facing them it is imperative that everyone - government, employers, health and care professionals, schools and universities, and each of us individually - plays a role putting carers in touch with practical and financial help.
"Carers need to feel they are valued, understood and connected to their community."
According to Carers NI, there are thousands of people suffering financial hardship, isolation and ill health as the numbers caring for family and friends continue to rise with an ageing population and pressure on health and social care budgets.
"Carers' work must not be taken for granted," it says.
"Without the unpaid care provided every year by family and friends, our health and social care system would collapse.
"The physical and mental strain of caring without support is jeopardising carers' ability to care both now and in the future."
Banbridge man Alan McDowell (57) spent six years being cared for during a period of mental illness, and recalls how him then-wife Pat and his late parents provided "unending love, care, support, encouragement and hope".
He said: "They never once took their love away and they never gave up on me. Their role as carers was amazing and I am so grateful to them.
"Thankfully I am much better today, and while Pat and I have separated, we remain very close and are committed friends. We went through so much together."
Alan is a supporter of local mental health charity CAUSE, which provides support to carers of loved ones with serious mental illness.
"After my mum’s death, I found a letter from CAUSE that offered support and help to her in her care giving role.
"So to those people today in Northern Ireland who are carers, I say thank you so much for your incredible commitment. The country would be on its knees without you."
:: Based at 393 Holywood Road in Belfast, CAUSE (www.cause.org.uk) can be contacted on 028 9065 0650 or via its Helpline at 0800 103 2833