The role of the carer is not one to be taken on lightly.
There is no time off, no holidays, disrupted sleep, in many cases almost constant exhaustion and the mental stresses of caring for a loved one whom, if it's an elderly parent, you are seeing deteriorate physically and mentally before your very eyes. Don't let anyone tell you it is anything other than a very tough job.
For much of the past week, in the wake of last week's budget, the columns of the newspapers and the airwaves have been clogged with stories of dedicated family carers who are now faced with a reduction in their Respite Care Grant, which enables them to take a break from caring for elderly, infirm or disabled family members. The issue has opened up the eyes of the country to the plight of carers and what they do every day, week in, week out, all year round.
The 19 per cent cut in their respite grant amounts to a loss of €400 per year to them and many believe such a reduction affecting a group of people who save the State €4 billion a year and provide 900,000 hours of daily care to their loved ones is simply immoral. It is difficult not to agree with that sentiment.
For many of those caring for loved ones, particularly disabled children or dependants, their stories are heartbreaking. Caring for these vulnerable members of society is simply the only option for them. They do not want their disabled children institutionalised, believing that all children should be able to live at home with their families, despite the difficulties and disruption that sometimes creates for normal family life.
In the wake of this year's budget, the annual respite grant, which is paid to about 70,000 families in Ireland each year, is being cut by €325 to €1,375. This will yield a saving of €26 million, or 6.6 per cent of welfare spending reductions next year. Despite the outcry in the wake of the budget, senior government ministers have continued to defend the decision on the basis that the carer's allowance - at €229 per week - was one of the "most generous" welfare payments and that the respite grant is still at a higher level than the €1,200 payment being made in 2006 when the economy was nearing the peak of the Celtic Tiger boom.
However, such claims will ring hollow for those whose lives revolve around caring for a family member, whose days and nights are often consumed by exhaustion and stress. Being able to afford respite care to allow themselves a break is quite simply a lifeline for them.
Local family carers protesting outside the offices of government TD Deputy Damien English in Navan this week talked of their desperation and fear after being targeted in last week's budget. Several of them said they are looking after elderly parents, disabled loved ones and special needs children in poverty, with one protester saying she had to use the respite care grant for food and necessities for her child and described how she had to turn off heat and stop lighting the fire to make ends meet.
As up to 40 carers gathered outside the offices of Deputy English on Monday, organiser Trish Flood said they wanted their voices to be heard as they had given up everything to look after their loved ones, and pointing out they were the only group who worked for their social welfare payments.
As many as 1,642 carers in Meath will be impacted by the reduction if it goes ahead. Approximately 140 these do not get any State support other than the respite care grant, according to Senator Thomas Byrne, who said this latest cut is particularly devastating for them. The 20 per cent cut in the respite care grant directly affects all of these people who will be down €6.50 a week or €325 a year.
Having given all they can, they are quite simply not prepared to take this blow on the chin. They are hurt and angry that they are the ones who have had to suffer at the hands of a government which had other options at its disposal to make adjustments. Their voices are not heard all that often as they do not often have the time nor the energy to mobilise themselves into an effective lobby group. But their voices most certainly have been heard on this occasion, and despite the government's firm rebuff that there will be no backtracking on the measures outlined in last week's budget, on this occasion, the government will have to revisit this issue and see what can be done to sooth the anger of carers, a sector of society which does deserve all the support it can get, financial and otherwise.
The carers say they will protest as long as it takes to get this callous cut reversed, and they wholeheartedly deserve the support of the wider public in their campaign to be treated with fairness.
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