A vast network of unpaid carers save the UK £119billion a year, however, this whole system is heading towards crisis.
At nineteen years old I was hideously unprepared for the caring role thrust upon me. Yet, when my girlfriend's health deteriorated overnight, I willingly stepped up to meet the challenge. We're now married and I give my wife full-time, around the clock, care. Along with millions of other carers in the UK, the avoidable cost of caring has changed my life beyond recognition.
Caring for a loved one takes determination, commitment and patience. The cost of taking on this responsibility cannot be exaggerated. Every aspect of your life is impacted, for good and for bad. Caring teaches valuable life skills. You learn about what it truly means to take responsibility and, like iron forged by fire, you emerge stronger and able to bare more weight.
Caring can, unfortunately, have a significant negative impact on your health, relationships and prospects - something that I know all too much about. The truth is, however, that these highly damaging costs are avoidable. If only serious efforts were made to support carers before they reach breakdown, there would be far fewer cases of illness, fatigue and isolation.
Without first-hand experience it's difficult to fully appreciate that it means to care for another person. It's all-encompassing and has pushed me further than I ever expected.
To be a carer means that you are nurse, cook, secretary, cleaner, counsellor and support worker all rolled into one. You become responsible for your loved one's most basic needs - mobility, hygiene, nourishment - as well as their finances, relationships and general health. Beyond this comes the far more demanding task of helping to maintain their motivation and mental health. You find yourself frantically having to live two lives, theirs and your own.
Of course, no two experiences of caring are the same because the needs of care receivers vary so dramatically; however, with 1.4million people providing over 50 hours of unpaid care a week, this kind of intense care giving is common.
Carers don't receive training. I learnt by trial and error, making countless mistakes and falling short time and time again. As hard as I tried to give my wife everything she needed, I was in no way equipped to do so. Even now, four years later, I'm mostly making it up as I go along.
I haven't received any real practical support either. It has always been clear to me, after conversations with social workers and my own research, that help from social services is very limited. Despite regular assessments and plenty of promises, after four years I am yet to receive a moment of respite or have a single employed carer brought in to share my caring responsibilities. Despite my best effort to secure some kind of reprieve I have found myself frustrated by snail pace initiative and false expectations.
Like many carers I have often felt like my needs were ignored. My welfare has always been an afterthought, something to consider at the end of an appointment - if there's time.
My experience may not be universal - support for carers varies depending on your local authority - but I am in no way the only carer being let down. Even when I made it explicitly clear to social workers that I was not coping, near the point of collapse, no concrete support was ever offered.
It's a tragic irony that carers (men, women and even children) driven by compassion and responsibility so often succumb to illness. Carers are twice as likely to be in poor health as non-carers and 92% have claimed that caring had a negative impact on their mental health, citing problems with depression and anxiety.
I was no exception. Caring took a considerable toll on both my mental and physical health. As I strove to look after my wife, whilst working towards a degree, I was put under enormous pressure. I spent the majority of my time caring, trying to fit studying into any available moment. I struggled to keep up despite working night and day, continually pushing myself beyond my limits.
Caring for my wife meant neglecting my studies, and studying meant neglecting the needs of my wife. I became consumed by guilt and feelings of failure. I isolated myself and began ignoring my health because it was the only way that I could keep my head above water. I just didn't have the time or energy to keep in touch with friends or actively consider my wellbeing. It was an unsustainable lifestyle which sent me further down the road of disaster. Slowly, but surely, depression snuck in and took a hold of my life. Add to this unrelenting fatigue for a truly toxic mixture
I'd gone from being an active young man, who exercised regularly and thrived around other people, to, at my worst, not being able to get out of bed. I had become a shadow of my former self.
I couldn't look after myself, let alone my wife. We stopped eating properly, barely got dress and everything fell apart around us. I watched as my wife's health worsened, fully aware that I could no longer give her the care she needed.
Now that I've graduated, in spite of adversity, I find myself unable to pursue employment outside of the home. My wife still needs around the clock care and there is a lack of suitable social care available.
This is a common pitfall for carers. Over three million carers have been forced to significantly reduce their work hours, and 2.3million have had to leave work altogether, because of the lack of suitable care services. This loss of income puts a serious financial burden on households as well as exacerbating depression, anxiety and stress.
Worryingly this is all likely to get worse as social care budgets continue to be slashed. Social care services in England have already been cut by £3.5billion and it is unpaid carers, already at the limit of what they can handle, who are expected to bare the pressure. The opportunity for respite is reduced, domestic support for people with disability is slashed or removed altogether and more weight is placed on the shoulders of carers.
I, along with 6.5million other carers in the UK, have been let down by an inadequate system characterised by the scarcity, or complete absence, of support. While countless carers head towards breaking point, or have already tumbled off the edge, nothing is being done to deal with the problems.
The fragile system continues to head towards disaster since, like most resources, carers can only be relied on so much before they are all used up. We need support if we are to continue to care. Unless we want to see a complete collapse in the family care structure, serious efforts need to be made to relieve some of the pressure on carers.
*Figures taken from www.carersuk.orgSuggest a correction