Unpaid family carer recognition and reform

While those living with life-limiting and chronic illnesses face great challenges, so, too, do the family and friends who care for them, and they are often overlooked, writes Richard Newman. 

Research is ringing an alarm bell and showing that carers live with significantly higher levels of psychological distress and lower levels of wellbeing than the average Australian. Not only that, but recent research indicates that 57% of WA carers receiving government payments are living below the poverty line and are often drawing on their own savings to help support their loved ones and keep the family unit together. 

Richard Newman

So, let’s talk about carers. After all, almost everyone one of us, at some point, has been or will be a carer.

A carer is someone who provides unpaid care and support to family members and friends who are living with disability, mental ill health, a long-term health condition (including a chronic condition or terminal illness), an alcohol or other drug dependency, or who is frail aged. 

There are over 2.65 million carers across Australia (nearly 11% of the population), and over 320,000 in WA. In 2020, the estimated hourly cost of formal care in place of unpaid care was $36.12 per hour. When the work carers undertake is extrapolated, this equates to a total replacement cost of $77.9 billion nationally.

4 to 1

To put that into perspective, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there are only 642,000 registered health professionals in Australia. That’s four unpaid carers to every one paid health professional.

Due to the impact and tasks undertaken, those in an unpaid caring role will often be unable to be engage in paid employment.  This reduces their earning capacity in the short-to-medium term but also impacts their long-term financial security and ability to accrue superannuation. 

On average, carers forego more than $390,000 in lost wages to age 67 and a further $175,000 in superannuation. This, in combination with other systemic faults in social housing, health and community supports and carer concession processes, result in a recipe ripe for homelessness and lower socio-economic outcomes.

Law inadequate

Despite the substantial impact of the caring role, state, territory and federal legislation is insufficient in attempting to achieve its intent of building awareness and recognition and carer recognition Acts around Australia are not enforceable.

Recognition is the key element underlining the broad and significant challenges that people in an unpaid caring role face, whether this be recognition of self as a carer, or recognition by outside parties of their role as a carer. This could be by family, friends, community, hospitals, GPs or by the services carers navigate themselves for, and on behalf of, the person for whom they care. 

In June 2023, the Australian House of Representatives’ Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs instigated an inquiry into the recognition of unpaid carers. Overall, the inquiry will examine the provisions and operation of the federal Carers Recognition Act 2010 (the Act) and consider what the role of a reformed Act may be. 

Carers WA, as the peak body representing and advocating for the needs and interests of unpaid carers in Western Australia received an invitation from the committee to provide a submission to the inquiry and will be doing so within the confines of the Terms of Reference. Unfortunately, the inquiry does not include the ‘adequacy’ of carers’ payments. 

While Carers WA welcomes the inquiry into the recognition of unpaid carers, the exclusion of carer payments from its scope, eliminates consideration of an element of the full picture of carer recognition, and does not go towards securing a positive economic future for carers. 

However, the scope of the inquiry does include the effectiveness of carer legislation in recognising and raising awareness of the role of unpaid carers, at a state, territory and federal level. It will also look at options for better identification of unpaid carers in Australia. 

Cementing the necessity for such an inquiry as this, is the need for the term ‘carer’ to be clearly defined in every medium in which they are referred to, whether this be an article, policy submission or other means. 

We are all part of the change and identifying and recognising carers is the first step to reform. We should all be appalled that 57% of WA carers live below the poverty line and are being expected to contribute financially to the wellbeing of others; all without thanks, recognition or hope of a secure financial future. 

Carers WA invites you to work with us to achieve an improved quality of life for family carers in our state.  

– References on request

ED: Richard Newman is CEO of Carers WA. www.carerswa.asn.au