Plight of our carers under the spotlight

CARERS are often invisible to the wider community but this 'hidden army' is estimated to be more than 2.5 million Australians - 70 per cent of them women.

Due to the efforts of a hard-working group of advocates, the plight of carers and their needs has come under the spotlight this year, with a federal parliamentary inquiry now underway.

James Catchpole is the inquiry secretary and told The Northern Star that the Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth had been overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of public submissions received.

“It's certainly sent a very strong message to our politicians about the strength of feeling in the community on the topic and the issues carers face,” Mr Catchpole said.

The inquiry has travelled around Australia holding hearings and its report is due to be handed down in March next year.

It aims to better understand the immediate and long-term challenges faced by carers so the committee can make well-informed recommendations on practical ways to improve and extend the support available for carers.

This week has been Carers Week and the Federal Government announced a $12 million national grants program to improve respite services for carers.

“This is about allowing carers to have time to themselves or get a much-needed break as they give so much to others,” Justine Elliot, the Minister for Ageing said.

Community-based respite services are funded to help in various ways.

The Far North Coast Commonwealth Carer Respite Centre is located at Alstonville and is a first port of call for information about the respite services and support available to carers in our region.

Trudy Collins is the centre's team leader and said the organisation aimed to give carers information, knowledge, skills and access to resources so they could gain greater power over their lives and could make appropriate decisions about respite needs.

“Our Carelink services offer information on the different service providers available offering both short-term and emergency respite care,” Ms Collins said.

The centre also links carers up with other services of help to carers and their families, such as support groups, retreats and social gatherings.

In Lismore, one service available for overnight respite stays for young people is Interchange Respite Care Inc.

Run by Margo Sten and Di Hughes, this is a volunteer-based service relying on fundraising and funding through various agency programs.

The centre is a rambling home in Lismore Heights tucked away at the end of a street. Walking in you're greeted by a friendly cocker spaniel called Milo and a cat called Duncan. The entrance and office is like a teenage wonderland - a creatively decorated space that spells out fun and relaxation. It's like a dream sleepover house.

The centre came about because child respite clients wanted a space they could use to stay with friends as they become teenagers.

“We have three age groups of kids and they are on various programs allowing them to stay overnight regularly with the same friends. Most of our older kids have intellectual disabilities and live independently so they really enjoy getting together in a supported environment with volunteer staff to chat, cook and hang out,” Ms Sten explained.

The centre is unique in NSW and the women are proud of what they have created.

“The volunteer workers are trained but the difference is that they are here because they want to support our young people and not for a pay packet and our youngsters really respond to that care,” Ms Hughes said.

Thirty-year-old Natalie comes from a family with a couple of children with disabilities and she comes to the Interchange one night a fortnight.

“I love meeting up with friends and we go out shopping and out for dinner and to the movies,” she said.

Natalie and four other young women are planning a trip to the Gold Coast to visit a former Interchange friend.

“I'm looking forward to going nightclubbing, but the main reason I love coming here is that it gives me a break from the family,” Natalie said.

Ms Hughes said Interchange also empowered its clients, helping them learn social skills and how to act appropriately in different situations.

“The girls take on the role of looking after the place when they stay. It's their place, it's a house they use. We give them responsibility, they feed the cat or look after the dog and they look after each other,” Ms Hughes said.

Interchange is flexible, attempting to meet carers' needs and clients can stay two or three weeks if necessary with help from an agency.

Ms Sten said carers were happy if their kids were happy.

“Interchange gives them peace of mind.

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