Britain's army of unpaid carers are isolated, depressed, physically exhausted and broke as they struggle to cope with caring for sick and disabled relatives without adequate support.
A poll carried out by the Carers Trust has revealed nearly 60 per cent of adult carers reported suffering mental health problems due to the strain of caring and juggling other responsibilities.
Just over a quarter experienced both physical and mental health problems, with muscular strains, insomnia and exhaustion common complaints. Almost 60 per cent said caring had damaged their careers.
The findings, from a YouGov poll of 500 adults, will put further pressure on the Government to provide universal access to support services for Britain's six million unpaid carers, who save the economy an estimated £119bn every year. The survey also found that almost two-thirds had never accessed counselling, respite or welfare support – services known to reduce the stress and burden on carers.
Shadow Health Minister, Andy Burnham, last night called for minimum national standards and ring-fenced budgets for carer support in order to avoid a "bedevilling" postcode lottery.
Existing evidence suggests carers are twice as likely to suffer ill health as the general population, and almost three-quarters become financially worse off. More than 1.5 million carers are aged over 60, and as they are often relied upon to move or lift immobile people or are asked to bathe, clothe and medicate sick relatives, they require support too.
David Cameron has spoken out about the value of carers and the need to better protect their well-being. By 2037, the number of carers is expected to rise to nine million as a result of an aging population, better survival rates from medical conditions and a reduction in public funding for social care. Mr Burnham, who is involved in cross-party talks trying to reach a consensus on how to deal with Britain's "care crisis", said: "If carers can't cope, it ends up costing us more, so it doesn't make economic sense to drive carers into the ground – never mind that it's wrong morally.
"Localism often means a postcode lottery and carers' issues often fall between cracks. I believe that sometimes you need ring-fenced funding to drive through change, otherwise things don't change and families are left struggling."
Anne Roberts, chief executive of the Carers Trust, said: "Many carers don't identify themselves as carers, and so simply don't have any awareness of the kind of help that is out there."
Campaigners also warn that the squeezing of adult social care by local authorities is starting to filter down to carers. Emily Holzhausen, director of policy at Carers UK, said: "We are seeing very worrying signs about the impact of local authority cuts and tightening of eligibility criteria."
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "We are working with ... interested parties to create a sustainable system that ensures people and their carers get the quality care they want."
Case study: I carried on until I ended up in a cardiac unit
Norman Phillips, 60, from Stevenage, had to give up his work as a programme manager for an IT firm four years ago to look after his wife. Ros, 62, suffers from multiple sclerosis, but did not qualify for local authority support. The couple were unaware of carer organisations and couldn't afford to pay for full-time carers. Norman became depressed, damaged his back from lifting and moving Ros, who often falls, and the couple almost lost their house.
The days were getting longer and longer, that's what done for me in the end, I knew it wasn't sustainable but I pushed it too far until I collapsed and ended up in a cardiac unit, totally exhausted," he said.
"Financially it was a disaster; we ended up having to be mortgage rescued and we were at risk of being made homeless. I went to Citizen's Advice – I felt humiliated. I went from earning a good wage to this, and everything was closing in.
"A little bit of help early on could have avoided a lot of what happened to us. But there is no one to help steer you through what is a minefield. If you get cancer, you get all sorts of help to steer you through the system, with MS and Parkinson's and other chronic conditions, you're lucky if you get a leaflet.
"A bit of help would allow you to plan a way through, as when you're in it, you don't realise that the wall of water coming up behind you is going to catch you eventually."
Caring in numbers
6m: 1 in 8 adults (around six million people) are carers; this is expected to rise to 9 million by 2037
58% of carers are women and 42% are men
3m: More than 3 million people juggle care with work and 1 in 5 carers are forced to give up work
50: 1.25 million people provide more than 50 hours of care per week