"Last night I had half an hour spare. I thought do I mop the floor where the dogs have made a mess or do I have a bath the floor won."
Pauline Adult Carer
It’s five years five months since I left a daily paper in Blackpool – and walked in through the door of Blackpool Carers Centre.
Back then staff jostled for elbow room and parking space on a small semi-industrial estate in a building which had once hosted carer events but had long been outgrown by need.
Today there are still 10k hidden carers in the resort community. The charity now supports 6000 unpaid kinship (and other) carers, 1k young and young adult carers, 5000 adult carers.
They do so from Beaverbrooks House on Newton Drive, Blackpool, a property so named because it was bought and presented to them, for a peppercorn rent for 20 years, by Beaverbrooks Charitable Trust.
This is the House that BBC DIY SOS rebuilt in the summer of 2016 as the Big Build for Children in Need watched by 3.9m viewers, mostly tearful.
The extraordinary generosity of Beaverbrooks endures to this day. The building is in virtually daily use. On Saturday young carers gathered there from across the region for a Mini Care Fest to mark the start of National Carers Week (June 10-16). They marvelled at the place.
Local carers of all ages never take what they have there for granted. Nor do staff. At any day a grant could end, or not renew, pulling the plug on a crucial project, or the landscape of social care could change, meaning yet another reinvention – and not always with reinvestment. Like the carers themselves, the charity is flexible, responsive, stoic.
Those 1000 young carers on the Blackpool charity’s books are outnumbered five to one by adult carers – the pity being there is no Adults in Need annual appeal.
I’ve been a young carer and young adult carer three times over. I’m 63 this month. There was no Blackpool Carers Centre back then, no one to help me cope, avoid ruining my exam grades, or equip me with the skills to avoid making bad decisions that would haunt the rest of my life such as choosing to ‘put the paper to bed’ rather than dash to my dying father’s bedside from an under staffed newsroom. I got there in time but only just. As one wise man at the charity observes there are no wrong decisions, just decisions that seem right at the time.
I’m now on the home run, a rite of passage carer for an elderly mum, the reason I finally left journalism five years ago, having found that two years of reducing my working weekly days to four didn’t help.
My health is declining. Adult carer’s syndrome affects many. Whether it’s the sleepless nights, the sheer lug of heavier duties or the emotional tug of watching a loved one’s wellbeing slip away on the ebb tide of the NHS it’s telling on the nerves and takes its toll physically too.
This week, National Carers Week, I’m fighting another battle. For greater awareness of all carers, young and old, specifically my corner of it.
This is not for me. It is for them. The day I stepped into Blackpool Carers Centre I learned a valuable lesson in perspective.
There is always someone worse off. I’ve met them. And they are life enhancing. Inspirational – a term most carers detest.
The young carers I met so briefly on Saturday from across the region at Beaverbrooks House will be carried in my heart forever - particularly the two ‘besties’ from Barrow who spoke to BBC Lancashire’s Hayley Kay (the charity’s ambassador on site with a live outside broadcast). “I look after a lot of people in my family – and it’s hard work,” declared one.
Me? I look after one. Just one. That’s hard enough. Some kids are looking after their parents, their brothers and sisters, arriving at school having already done the real ‘homework’, and falling asleep at their desks.
You’ll find the adult carers generally off camera. They’re just as emotive but overlooked yet who wouldn’t be moved by the feisty ATS veteran in her late 90s who came to the charity’s notice only after breaking her own health caring for her husband with dementia. Her first respite trip out became her sleep aid, revisiting every step of the journey, the afternoon tea, the chat, the laughter, whenever she felt “alone or frightened … so I go to sleep smiling.” This was a woman who used to strip engines in the war. The get-by generation.
When I dropped in on one of the Dementia Fresher sessions at Beaverbrooks House I recognised a chap in his 50s. He’d worked on my car years ago. He’d quit work to care full time for his wife, who has dementia. When life throws carers a curve ball they don’t duck out of the way.
There are others who have a foot in both camps, cared for and carer, even volunteer. One mum featured in DIY SOS, former nurse, has osteoporosis, is cared for by both daughters. Today she fights the pain for the gain of volunteering as a ‘functioneer’ helping at the charity’s functions or Carers Kitchen on Saturdays. Nobody notices the walking frame upon which she has to lean frequently. They see the person not the disability. “I’m part of the furniture here now,” she laughs.
The first parent carer I ever met - back when the group met at a converted shop at Church Street - told me her daughter, with multiple issues, had slept through the night for the very first time life without prescribed medication after attending a session there. Another I met that very first year is now working “to help others achieve their potential” but admits her daughter has only just received a diagnosis of autism “11 years in the making.”
Carers move on faster these days, go through the structured programme of support and respite, skills and mindfulness, in order to help them cope so much better – leaving the way clear for new referrals. re-referrals, and hopes of reaching the 10k more hidden carers out there. And they can always come back, get another assessment, or better still become their own peer support groups. Such as Pauline, Beverley and Jack.
All three – along with others who can’t be identified even by first name – are walking talking lessons in perspective. To be part of that carer clan, if only for a few hours, feels like – well, how a family should be. They share, they laugh, they sometimes meet up, they call one another to check on them, they trade notes on who’s having the worst week. And it’s not cliquish. Pauline’s won the worst week prize, hands down. Her partner’s bipolar. “You fight the system all the time. You go into battle every day. You go over the same ground every day. It’s soul destroying.
“Last night I had half an hour spare. I thought do I mop the floor where the dogs have made a mess or do I have a bath – the floor won.”
Pauline doesn’t get holidays these days or make short, let alone, long term plans. Her ‘holiday’ was an overnight stay at the De Vere. Warrington, when her other half was at the Priory, Cheadle, and she had to be there two days running. “I couldn’t face four motorway trips there and back – especially with the second meeting at 9am.” So, she booked a hotel and the carers centre, to her joy, helped.
“I felt like I’d won the jackpot. I did my face, creamed my feet, shaved my legs, sat in bed reading and eating chocolate - all the things you don’t get a chance to do when you’re caring round the clock.”
She dressed up, braved the bar alone, ordered a vodka “and felt like a right devil, a real grown up.”
She slept soundly for the first time in almost two years. “It was better than a week in Barbados for me. It was a bath I didn’t have to clean, a bed I didn’t have to make, a breakfast I didn’t have to prepare – and a proper night’s sleep.”
Pauline fell in love 10 years ago- she’s been fighting for support for her “brilliant broken” man for six years.
The former DWP worker despairs of the state ‘support’ system for carers and their loved ones
We, Carers, hold together a safety net shot full of holes by cutbacks and decades of neglect of health and social care.
We, Carers, save the state £132bn a year.
Blackpool Carers Centre’s benefits advisor helped carers access £637,381 of benefits over 2017-18.
One of those helped explains: “When I started getting my state pension, I stopped getting carers allowance. We’d sit in the cold and decide what bills to pay. With the support of the Blackpool Carers’ Benefits Advisor we have accessed pension credit and PIP – we had no idea we were entitled to any of these benefits.”
For every £1 spent on fundraising the charity brings in at least £12 to support local carers.
Blackpool Carers Centre fights the carers’ corner. It also fights for funding rather than over reliance on a statutory sector knee-capped by cutbacks.
When funding is lost it regroups, reassesses, reinvents and reinvests in reshaped services, strategically targeted.
As I walk back to my car at Beaverbrooks House – and staff still struggle for parking space because of all the activities now on site - I find young carers painting bricks on a wall accompanied by their sunny natured respite worker Jenny.
All in all - just another brick in the wall? Far from it. Those bricks represent respite, utter immersion in a project, the cares of home fading away against a vivid backdrop. Here is a charity which helps – as head of services Faye Atherton puts it – “carers to see their lives in colour again.” Not shades of grey.
Beyond the wall is an annexe, untouched by DIY SOS, on which the charity rests hope for a respite lodge. The charity is building on solid foundations here. Carers underpin those foundations. Face it, they already hold the fabric of society together.