Hackney’s growing army of carers - and the support they receive

Alzheimer's patients with their carers. 

Alzheimer's patients with their carers. - Credit: Theglobalpanorama

Every week on Wednesday mornings, Donald Hutera sits down in his kitchen, logs on to Zoom and allows pianist Romain, hired by City & Hackney Carers Centre, to guide him through the songs of the day.

“We’re all on mute,” said Donald. “You sing in your kitchen as loudly as you want. I learn about myself. And it's a shared thing. I know there are other people living in whatever their circumstances are, who are also dealing with issues of isolation or loneliness. It's a kind of virtual tissue between us.”

Donald is one of the 17,000 carers currently residing in Hackney, where he looks after his long-term partner Allen. Since taking on this role in 2017, Donald has used the support systems put in place by City & Hackney Carers Centre to get through difficult times. 

“A lot of carers are unpaid, unsung and unrecognised,” he said. “But I feel very well supported [in Hackney] … and so very well supported by City & Hackney Carers, in particular. Those people have been just wonderful in so many ways.”

City & Hackney Carers Centre was founded in 1996 to meet the need for support for unpaid carers in Hackney.

The centre offers advice and information for carers, counselling services and wellbeing activities.

It is currently in touch with around 2,000 out of the 17,000 carers in Hackney with demand for support increasing following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Donald Hutera and his long-term partner Allen.

Donald (right) is one of the 17,000 carers currently residing in Hackney, where he looks after his long-term partner Allen (left). Picture taken at Syon Park on a visit to Angela Groundwater's small exhibition of wares in September 2018. - Credit: Courtesy of Donald Hutera

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Demand for support greater than ever

With the vaccine roll-out categorising people in priority groups, more and more people are self-identifying as carers.

“We call them hidden carers,” said Joanna Brunt, CEO of City & Hackney Carers Centre. “A lot of the time people say, ‘well, that's just my mum, or that's just my dad, I help them, that's what I'm supposed to do’. But the vaccine has made them think, ‘actually, what they're describing there is me, I’m a carer’.”

This, in turn, has led to more people seeking support.

The counselling service, especially, has experienced an increase in demand, according to Joanna: “Referrals have been going up and up and up since November last year. Over 50 per cent of the users of the counselling service are carers for people with dementia, and I think that tells the story of how much they’ve been affected by the pandemic.”

Joanna recognises that it can be difficult for carers to find the time and privacy to use the counselling services, but she said it is important for them to take time to look after themselves and have a break.

“We try to offer activities that will take them away from their caring role, even if it's just for an hour, to give them some tools to help them relax,” she said.

As well as the weekly choir, Donald has also made use of the counselling service, Coaching for Carers sessions and Brocals group sessions, which aim to combat loneliness and isolation for older men in Hackney.

Carers at their ‘breaking point’

For Donald, the support he has received in Hackney has been vital to helping him cope, especially during the pandemic.

He said: “I think I’ve coped pretty well, partly due to the creative outlets and support [from City & Hackney Carers Centre]. Caring for someone and the anxieties that come about with their well-being and their health, it’s quite immense. It's quite a responsibility. Anything that is in place that can facilitate the ease of that and the support of that, that itself needs to be supported.”

One of Donald’s coping mechanisms is his daily walk with Allen.

He said: “Finsbury Park is beloved to me and I think Allen would feel something similar, maybe not quite so effusive as that, but I just adore going, it’s been a real lifeline.” 

Joanna also stresses the importance of support for carers, especially in the light of the pandemic, which has caused many initiatives to be put on hold until meeting face-to-face is again possible.

She said: “I just think carers need those support services back in place as soon as possible… I do understand the stresses and strains that these services are under, but many carers really are at breaking point.”

Even with the limitations caused by the pandemic, Donald is thankful to live in Hackney with the support being offered there.

“I am truly grateful. That's the bottom line; gratitude,” he said.