11/06/2013 13:41 BST | Updated 11/08/2013 06:12 BST

Prepared to Care?

Our population is ageing and people are living longer with disabilities and in poor health. As a society, are we prepared to meet this rapidly growing demand for care? Asks Heléna Herklots, Chief Executive of Carers UK.

When you look at the figures on caring in the UK, something becomes quickly apparent - you should ignore anyone telling you that 'families just don't care for their elders any more' or that we're all shirking responsibilities to disabled or ill relatives.

Census statistics published in May show a remarkable picture of caring across the country - with carer numbers topping 6.5million, having grown by 600,000 in the last ten years, a steep rise in the increase in the number of older carers, and the fact that over 1.3million people now provide over 50 hours a week in care.

During national Carers Week, this contribution from families is something to recognise and celebrate. But the fact that families have responded to changing demographics by providing more and more care doesn't mean that, as a society, we're yet fully prepared to meet the growing care challenge that demographic change brings.

Joint research we've launched this week with the eight Carers Week charity partners shows that when an older relative starts to need care, a loved one falls ill or a disabled child is born, too often their families are missing out on the advice, information and support they need. Three quarters of carers taking part in the research felt that a lack of support had left them unprepared for the impact of caring. This may be not knowing about rights to flexible working if you are caring for someone, being unaware of the financial support available from the benefits system, or not being told about your rights to have your needs as a 'carer' assessed by your local council.

The research highlights the long-term impact that not getting advice and support can have- half of carers involved were forced to quit work to care, many had lost touch with friends or seen strain on family relationships and the costs to their physical and mental health and family finances were stark.

There are key people in society who are best placed to ensure carers get support early. To GPs and hospital staff, social workers and care workers - we ask them to look not just at the patient, the older or disabled person; to the family member who can be struggling to care for them. These frontline professionals can make all the difference by identifying people with caring responsibilities and guiding them to advice and support.

But the onus isn't just on people working in our public services. We can all play a part, by spotting and supporting friends, family members and colleagues who are carers. Often caring remains hidden and may only be visible to the outside world in tiredness and stress - perhaps through taking days off work to care for your older mum or no longer being able to go out with friends because of the needs of a disabled child. You don't need to be a doctor or a social worker to ask a friend or colleague who cares how they are doing and check if they have sought support from a local support group or an expert advice service. Carers Week shows the huge range of organisations - from supermarkets to libraries - who can get involved in this kind of community support.

Of course, once identified, you need support to be available. As the Government sharply reduces spending on disability and carers' benefits, and pressure on local government budgets result in cuts to care services and rising care charges, we know that families who were already struggling to access support are finding their lives are being made harder still.

Carers Week is a time to celebrate all that carers do, and look at what each part of society can contribute to improving their lives. But a clear message must also go to Government and local councils to invest in support for carers. Cutting support to families who care is short-sighted; it fails to recognise the pressure that carers are already under and shows how far we still have to go as a country to prepare to care for our ageing population.

Carers Week is delivered by a partnership of national charities - Age UK,Carers Trust, Carers UK, Independent Age, Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care, MS Society and Parkinson's UK.