Opinion: Let's not forget the plight of the carers

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support

Carers Week passed with only a fraction of the publicity it deserved - the annual challenge is to retell a story that is part of everyday life and invisibly woven into the fabric of public expectations.

Millions of people are carers, many of whom take on the role out of love or duty, but then become trapped in appalling isolation, poverty or both. The stress of caring can lead to physical and mental illness and, as some recent high-profile cases have shown, the death of both the carer and the person they cared for.

I'm writing this in Herefordshire, a county that suggests twinset and waxed-jacket comfort but which also has high levels of rural deprivation. Deprivation is often the bedfellow to lung cancer, which is typically diagnosed very late in its course. It progresses relentlessly and statutory services, straitjacketed by formal assessments, cannot keep pace. And while the resources of the NHS are focused on the deteriorating patient, the carer is often ignored. Crossroads, a charity serving carers, offers member schemes that give immediate support to people whose need begins abruptly and progresses at the same breakneck speed as the lung cancer of the person they care for.

I was a carer for my parents until they died, but only at weekends to give my niece a break: every Monday I went back to my 'normal' life at Macmillan, a luxury denied to most carers.

My parents were supported by a web of paid and voluntary care, and by friends and neighbours, as well as by us. But I had a glimpse into the harsh and lonely world that millions of people inhabit with their sick, disabled or elderly dependents. One of the lessons I learned is that, when you're in an involuntary caring role, you can't imagine that it will ever end. This alone cranks up the stress to levels you could never have dreamt of.

And I've just had another reminder of the brutal realities of being a carer, with the death of my closest friend. From confident assumptions about their future life together, he and his wife were pitchforked into a nightmare as his physique, personality and intellect were dismantled by the disease.

Within weeks, she found herself changing from his friend, wife and lover to the mother of a terrified dependant. Alzheimer's, strokes or injuries produce the same effect on thousands of people as my friend's brain tumour did on him. His death came quickly - a kind of mercy - but for many carers there is no waking from the nightmare.

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