A Victorian aged-care support service is raising an alarm on the mental health of elderly carers as the state copes with lockdown measures - with stage four restrictions coming into effect in Melbourne from Thursday.
Aged care and disability support service EACH says Victorians caring for their partners or relatives during COVID-19 are facing twin challenges: social isolation and a hugely increased workload.
Peter Ruzyla is the chief executive of EACH, which also offers mental health and youth services. He said while the service has seen a rise in the number of general calls for mental health support, calls from carers have "bottomed out".
The federal government recently announced an extra $7.3 million in support for mental health, and residents impacted by further restrictions in areas impacted by the second wave of the pandemic can now get up to 20 Medicare subsidised sessions with a psychologist.
But Mr Ruzlya said based on calls recieved to EACH he is concerned carers are still not coming forward to ask for help and may be reluctant to seek out respite care in nursing homes because of the crisis unfolding in the state's aged care facilities.
"Unfortunately this suggests to me carers are lacking the time, even a couple of minutes, to put themselves first or carers are uncertain about the benefits of sharing their concerns with someone else."
He said over a quarter of unpaid, primary caregivers are over the age of 65.
"They have likely been self-isolating quite strictly with their loved one at home for the majority of this year," he said.
"At the same time their loved ones have lost access to face-to-face support from services like ours that would usually provide carers with a break, so caregivers are facing a much increased workload at home."
Peter's story: 'It's just been me'
Donvale's Peter Edwards, 75, is the primary carer for his wife, Lyn, who was diagnosed with Alzheimers 12 years ago.
Mr Edwards said that since COVID-19 hit his caring responsibilities have spanned 24-hours a day.
"Usually Lyn would attend a daily program at EACH for six hours on weekdays, where she does activities and catches up with her friends, but that program has not been running since April," he said.
"We get two or three get phone calls from support workers checking in during the week and activities dropped at our house for Lyn, but apart from that it's just been me so it's certainly been more of a challenge.
"I have to do all the shopping with Lyn, the cooking, organise activities for Lyn, get us both to the dentist, doctor, hairdresser. You're thinking for two people all of the time and you're constantly going through your head what has to be done.
"I have a friend in a similar situation to me who unfortunately has had a severe mental health breakdown because of the pressure," he said.
"Carers need to take steps to stay healthy, otherwise people will end up looking after you."
Mr Ruzlya said it was ccritical to the health of many Victorians that carers did not feel like they had nowhere to turn.
"Talk with friends and family about how you can organise regular breaks from your responsibilities or share your responsibilities with another family member, make little things easier by having access to pre-prepared meals," he said.
"Seek out mental health support, a lot of services can be provided over the phone and don't be afraid to talk about your problems with friends and relatives you trust. These steps will help you and your loved ones get through this period together."
Calls for one-off payment
Meanwhile Carers Australia is calling for a further one-off payment of $750 to all unpaid carers across Australia.
Carers Australia chief executive Liz Callaghan said the extra payment would go some way to providing the support carers need to continue caring during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Carers have been doing a tremendous job throughout this difficult time, not only maintaining their caring roles in trying circumstances, but often going above and beyond to ensure the safety of those they care for," she said.
"The contribution of unpaid carers during COVID-19 has seen an increased provision of care - especially as there has often been cancelled in-home services and closure of community-based services.
"This diligent provision of care, often in isolation, has been of benefit in combatting community transmission and should be acknowledged by government not just with words but with adequate financial support.
"Recent clarification on the status of the JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs has provided welcome certainty and some financial security over the next few months to the recipients of those programs. Unpaid carers deserve the same in these difficult times."
The calls follow the release of research from Carers NSW, along with the Network of Carers Associations across Australia - which found the widespread social and economic impacts of the pandemic are significantly affecting the health and wellbeing of Australia's 2.8 million carers.
The research looked at the impacts of COVID-19 and reviewed evidence across Australia, the UK, Ireland and the USA.
Carers NSW chief executive Elena Katriakis said the findings confirm that carers are facing adverse impacts on their mental health and stress levels of both themselves and the people they care for, plus increased isolation due to the pandemic.
"Carers are also experiencing physical health challenges due to COVID-19, including changed sleep patterns, reduced access to health services and face-to-face medical treatment and delayed access to health interventions, such as surgery," Ms Katrakis said.
If you, or anyone you know, need help, you can call:
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
- Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service 1800 512 348 or coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au
- Older Persons COVID-19 Support Line 1800 171 866