The East of England Co-operative Society has put unpaid carers at the heart of its response to the pandemic. There are 270,000 unpaid carers in their area, including 50,000 young carers who have been hit harder than most by Coronavirus – some as young as four years old.

Through its Community Cares Fund, the East of England Co-op has provided support to five carer organisations across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. But the society didn’t want this to be just another grant donation. They engaged with the organisations to ask what their priorities were. The responses threw up some innovative ideas, but also highlighted some of the heart-breaking situations that families are dealing with during lockdown.

Young carers in particular felt their mental health was affected, as they weren’t connected anymore to people or support. A survey, carried out in July 2020 by Carers Trust, found that 67% of the young carers surveyed were more worried about the future, with 69% feeling less connected to others and 40% of saying their mental health had worsened in recent months.  Whilst many young people are worrying about boyfriends and exams, unpaid carers face the extra pressure of how they keep their mum, dad or sibling alive. Young carers can be very young, with 5-8 year olds regularly doing household chores alongside school work.

Young carers see this as normal, and often will not know they are carers till it is picked up at school. At a secondary school, a young person came to realise their situation was not normal: as well as feeling alienated with few friends, they were also bullied as a result. They hid in the toilets at break times because they were told that their mum should be caring for them, not the other way round.

In Norfolk, two sisters – not even eight years old – were caring for their dad who was waiting for a transplant. When their dad went into hospital, they did not understand what was going on and thought they had not cared for him enough. With him being so ill in hospital, he could not even speak to them – so they thought he had fallen out with them as a result.  Luckily, they received  targeted support from their local carer organisation to help them understand and cope with their unique family circumstance.

These situations are difficult to hear but the grants are helping, through new activity-based mental health programmes such as songwriting, helping more than 200 young people develop coping strategies, specialist Autism workshops, and virtual youth hubs as well as scoping a new family programme to address adverse childhood trauma in 4-8 year olds.

The funding will also change many lives and provide some respite in challenging times for adult carers near breaking point. The East of England Co-op learned of much needed respite for a woman in Essex, who was unable to take a bath as she couldn’t leave her husband for that long due to his dementia, or the lady who had what she described as two beautiful hours, where she was given a break from caring for her dad and daughter. She was exhausted but savoured drinking coffee and shopping alone.

Many adult carers are financially struggling too. But thanks to the funding, unpaid carers in Suffolk now have access to help so that they can obtain and retain the benefits to which they are entitled.

By listening to what was needed rather than assuming, it is hoped that this approach can give a voice to those unpaid carers that are struggling behind closed doors.