By Emma Clayton

I NEVER expected to be a carer. I don’t suppose anyone does, especially as a young adult.

But before I’d turned 30 I was helping my grandmother to bathe and dress in the later stages of her terminal illness. I stayed over several nights a week and, if I’m honest, I often resented giving up my social life after work to sit with her all evening.

Now I look back and feel quite touched that I spent those final weeks with her, painful as they were.

The following year, we started to realise something was wrong with my mum. Eventually she was diagnosed with dementia, in her mid-fifties. I have written about the devastating impact of watching my vibrant, life-embracing mother fade away. But here I write about what it means to be a carer; the exhausting reality for around 6.5 million people in the UK.

Carers Week has been highlighting the vital role that ordinary people take on when the time comes for them to care for a loved one. Every day another 6,000 people, including children, become carers. It can happen to anyone, at any time; it can be instant – following a road accident or a stroke – or it can creep up, as is often the case with ageing parents. While many people have to give up work to be a carer, over three million juggle a job and caring responsibilities.

I did that for 13 years, helping my dad care for my mum. Several evenings a week, after work, and at weekends I helped out to give him a break. It was important to me he could still go out to watch a match, or take a walk. My siblings did what they could but, with young children, their time was limited.

York Press:

We undervalue the role that carers play, says columnist Emma

As dementia tightened its grip, Mum lost her sight and speech and became unable to feed, dress or wash herself. She would wail, scream and lash out, night and day, and we’d find her wandering around the house in confused terror. It was like looking after a toddler with none of the joy.

By the time she was bedridden we had a good homecare package, but it seemed like she was turning into a tiny, frail bird in front of us, which was a huge emotional strain. When she died, my dad’s own health deteriorated and a few months later he passed away. I’m told that often happens with carers. I spent the final weeks of his life caring for him too.

Being a carer can be rewarding; we had some lovely, funny times with Mum and I’ll never forget her face breaking into a smile, even when she no longer recognised us. But being a carer is also a brutal, lonely, exhausting, soul-destroying existence. It’s no surprise that over 60 per cent of carers have had depression.

Thanks to organisations like Carers’ Resource, a support service for carers in the region, there is help out there. As well as practical support, the charity offers social activities giving carers much-needed respite.

Many people don’t see themselves as ‘carers’: it’s just what they do. I didn’t label myself a carer the three times in my adult life I was one. I did it out of love. Most carers would say the same.

But unpaid carers save the state around £132 billion a year. And they are more than twice as likely to suffer from poor health as those without caring responsibilities. By building carer-friendly communities, a key factor of Carers Week, we can focus more on carers’ own health and wellbeing. You never know when it’s going to happen to you.