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During the World Government Summit 2019, Lieutenant General Shaikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, delivered a compelling speech entitled ‘Journey of Wisdom’. He recounts asking his mother about the reasons behind the UAE’s strong community connections. In the past, he explained, families living together would pool resources, creating a network of shared support for various necessities should any find themselves in precarious circumstances. Looking after your own community, he emphasises, is how civilisations endure. This short, yet moving story elegantly captures the unique Emirati spirit of solidarity, dignity, and kindness.

Social care systems are the backbone of any competitive country and government policies have a direct influence on citizen well-being, income equality, home ownership rates, educational outcomes, and economic growth. Traditionally, social services and grants were almost always directed towards beneficiaries themselves, without considering the many unsung heroes who also play a pivotal role in caring for vulnerable individuals. In this article, I shall refer to them as the ‘carers’.

Each year, more and more people take on a carer responsibility for a family member who is incapable of fully caring for themselves; such as children, an elderly, or a family member with a chronic illness. This involves looking after the person’s well-being in its entirety; which is rewarding on one hand, yet is often a lot of responsibility and pressure for one person to cope with. We should not forget that these carers sometimes put their lives on hold to care for others. That is why we must take into account their needs and well-being, so as not to risk undermining their health and — by association — the people dependent on their care.

In 2018, researchers at Carers UK, a leading charity for carers, have spoken at length with 6,828 respondents on the daily struggles of caring for someone without the support of social care services. Through these conversations, researchers were able to identify a set of unwanted negative effects on a carer’s financial, physical, and mental well-being. For example, some carers had to give up full-time employment in order to care for the family member’s daily needs. The combination of decreased earnings and the dependent’s high healthcare costs was too burdensome to bear alone. This scenario is exasperated with carers who are ‘sandwiched’ between caring for children and an elderly as well. Additionally, carers sometimes need to be available for long hours, without a chance to rest or take time off. Accumulated stress could detrimentally affect the carer’s physical health and by time, their mental well-being as well. Lastly, the carers play an important role in communicating with the dependent’s health care team at hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies, then applying all the recommended treatment plans. Thus, they have an enormous, sole responsibility to be informed and trained to deal with any scenario they might face with the dependent.

Policymakers need to look into the valuable contributions of carers, who are often overlooked as part of the traditional health and social care system. They need to ensure the delivery of important services to carers, ranging from affordable care services that give them the respite and peace of mind they need to look after their loved ones, in addition to flexible work policies and content-rich apps or websites supporting them in their carer duties.

A great way to start would be to evaluate their needs via an assessment form. In the UK, for example, the Care Act 2014 ensures eligible carers get a ‘carer’s assessment’ to find out what support services they need according to their specific situations. A support plan is then drafted to meet those needs. Examples of how needs are met include accommodation in a care home, care services at home, goods and facilities, counselling, and advice.

Another way to assess carer needs is to look at health and social services according to critical life events. One good example is childcare. According to the World Health Organisation, around 13% of new mothers are susceptible to depression. In the UK, health visitors (who are qualified nurses or midwives) visit new mothers and their babies several times during the first few weeks after delivery. During these important visits, midwives check on the physical and emotional health of mothers. Midwives also dispense essential baby care advice that helps new mothers make better, more informed parenting decisions. For mothers choosing to return to work after having a baby, Scandinavian countries offer a childcare leave with the aim of balancing work commitments and childcare. In Norway, parents can take ten days per year until their child is 12 years old and fifteen days if the employee has more than two children. If the child has a disability or chronic illness, the employee may take more leave days.

Another important factor in assisting carers is the availability of important caring information. This is an important factor in preventing problems or dealing with problems before they get worse and more complicated. People want to be able to make quicker and more informed decisions about their care choices, which means providing the right information at all times. For example, the Australian government launched a parenting website (raisingchildren.net.au) dedicated to publishing evidence-based, best-practice parenting and child development information on newborns, toddlers, school age children, and teenagers. Another example is Age UK, which provides advice for carers of elderly family members.

There are many things we can do to ensure strong community connections and well-being for all members of our society. Designing an integrated and holistic care service for carers should include all aspects that will allow them to care well for their dependents. These include financial assistance, care services at home, housing, counselling, and so much more. Carers dutifully give so much to ensure their family members live a full life. We should also make sure they live well, too.

Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant focusing on human development policy and children’s literature.