Tuesday 21 May 2019

Willie O'Dea: 'Caring for the carers who save billions'

There is no excuse for not providing carers with the support, structure and back-up they need, writes Willie O'Dea

'The harsh reality is that carers in Ireland have been completely undervalued by this Government.' Photo: Stock image/Getty
'The harsh reality is that carers in Ireland have been completely undervalued by this Government.' Photo: Stock image/Getty

A few weeks back, in my capacity as the Fianna Fail spokesman on employment affairs and social protection, I launched our new policy document on carers.

It was the product of several months of discussions with individual carers across the country and their representative groups. The most extraordinary thing about those conversations was how often the carers spoke about concerns and issues faced by those they care for and how frequently they played down the difficulties, stresses and strains they endure.

Speak to any TD or councillor who meets carers at their clinics or when they are out canvassing and they will tell you the same things: carers rarely talk about themselves. They do not indulge in self-pity. They do what they do out of love and solidarity with their partners, family or loved ones.

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But, all too often, we misinterpret their focus on those for whom they care. We misread their stoicism as meaning things are all right and so we fail to see the many gaps in services and supports for the carers themselves. We overlook the reality that very many carers are themselves in poor health and are only just managing to get by.

We do not pay enough attention to the physical and emotional impact providing long-term, high-level care is having on those giving the care.

The harsh reality is that carers in Ireland have been completely undervalued by this Government. There are approximately 375,000 family carers in Ireland. The essential supports they provide saves the State in the region of €10bn a year. It is estimated that by 2030, one in five people in Ireland will be carers.

Any other group saving the State this amount would be demanding a chunk of it back for themselves.

The fact carers do not present us with a menu of demands is no excuse for not providing them with the supports, structures and back-up they require to allow them to tend for those needing their care. It is why I have been advocating better conditions for carers for years.

Back in 2016, I introduced the Nursing Home Support Scheme. Fine Gael rejected my opposition legislation, claiming it would soon introduce its own homecare policy.

Three years later there is still no sign of it. This Government has done nothing to support the vital work carers carry out on a daily basis. It has not seriously attempted to chart a pathway to action or provide carers with some hope the structures they require will be put in place.

It is why I launched my policy document. Today, one in 10 people provide care to a loved one. By 2030, as I have said, that figure will likely increase to one in five people taking on a caring role.

We need to act now to address current deficits and prepare for future challenges. My policy document is based on a simple premise: investing resources now will not only improve the lives of carers but will also be of financial benefit to the State.

It is just common sense to support those who save the State billions every year. But common sense is in an even smaller minority in this Varadkar-led Government than FG TDs.

I won't go into the minute details of my policy paper here, but among the changes I propose is a €3m investment that would help end the postcode lottery which makes access to services and supports dependent on where you live.

Other proposals include:

n Extend the number of weeks carers benefit is paid from 104 weeks to 156 weeks;

n Disregard the half-rate carers allowance in the assessment of means for fuel allowance;

n A new total contributions approach which will determine eligibility for the State Contributory Pension to be carer-proofed;

n Increase the number of hours a person is allowed to work or study from 15 hours per week to 18ƒ hours per week to be eligible for the carers allowance;

n Publish a new carers strategy so we can plan positively for future demographic changes.

I believe these proposals have the potential to improve the lives of carers across the country. Even a small number of changes could see the daily lives of carers significantly improved. So why are they waiting?

Willie O'Dea is the Fianna Fail TD for Limerick City

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