Hear from VOCAL, our charity of the year, as they give insight into how they support and empower unpaid carers across Edinburgh and Midlothian.
Anyone can find themselves in a caring role. As of 2020, an estimated 1.1 million unpaid carers deliver vital support across Scotland. An unpaid carer can be a family member, partner, relative or friend who supports a person who requires help to manage a long-term condition, disability, or other physical or mental health condition.
When people become carers they are often faced with a host of different questions. How do I manage medication? What is power of attorney? Am I doing this correctly? Voice of Carers Across Lothian (VOCAL), Baillie Gifford’s new charity of the year 2022/23, exists to help unpaid carers through these questions and beyond.
“VOCAL was established over 25 years ago to raise awareness of unpaid caring, and support carers across Edinburgh and Midlothian”, outlines Charmaine Sutherland, VOCAL’s training and engagement officer. She explains, “while caring is a vital, and rewarding role, it can also be quite challenging.
“Our mission is to support carers to manage their caring role, and ensure they also understand the importance of their own health, wellbeing, and happiness.”
The charity assists over 10,000 carers each year by providing access to a range of services including: individualised support, information surgeries, peer support, counselling, access to short break opportunities, and free events and activities.
Their offering is guided by a ‘carer-led-approach’, where VOCAL listen to the lived experience of individuals to ensure they can identify areas that carers are finding difficult and shape their services accordingly. “No one knows what carers need better than carers themselves” explains Charmaine.
Alongside providing carers with a full schedule of events, activities and courses, VOCAL works with individuals on a one-to-one basis.
“One of the main things we do is help create adult carer support plans. It all starts with a conversation; we learn about an individual’s role and then we can create a plan for achieving their goals and outcomes”.
The charity also hosts surgeries where carers can access specialist advice on a range of topics such as wellbeing, legal rights and how to manage finances. According to Charmaine, the impact of this support is significant.
“Recent changes to the benefits system, for example, can be very daunting, and knowing they can come to us for a session on how to apply can empower carers to stop hiding that benefit form in the drawer.”
Charmaine explains that creating opportunities for carers to take a break from their role and build support networks is a priority for VOCAL.
“We have a full booklet of events and activities that carers across Edinburgh and Midlothian can attend. We organise things like online bingo, craft workshops and coffee mornings for carers, to help them have a bit of a break, and build support networks with other carers”.
“It can be very lonely in a caring role. So, seeing carers, all at different stages in their caring role, coming together to share advice, experiences, and even build friendships is really rewarding.”
VOCAL’s desire to improve carers’ wellbeing inspired them to open their new carer cottage Hawthorn Brae in Blair Atholl this year. By listening to carers, they learned that many individuals, and those they care for, had difficulty finding somewhere that was safe, accessible, and affordable to go on holiday. Addressing this was a priority according to Charmaine:
“We all need a holiday now and again; a change of scenery is important to anyone’s wellbeing. Hawthorn Brae is a place where carers, and those with life-limiting conditions, can stay for free and take a break knowing it is designed with accessibility in mind.”
However, ensuring that unpaid carers know they can access the charity’s support remains a challenge. The primary reason for this, according to Charmaine, is that those providing unpaid support often don’t recognise they are carers.
She explains “Many people just view themselves as fulfilling a familial role. For example, a parent caring for a child with additional support needs may not see themselves as a carer but as a parent whose duty is to care for their child.
“You also don’t need to live with someone to be their carer. Many individuals who support someone already receiving an NHS care package may discredit their role as ‘admin’ as they may not do the personal care. But they are unpaid carers with a role to play.”
Despite these challenges, reaching out to carers, and those who may not realise they are carers is a core aspect of the charity’s work. Charmaine stresses “We want to make sure that if anyone in the community finds themselves in a caring role, they think of VOCAL”.
To help engage the community the charity is working towards expanding its volunteer base. They also have a physical presence at events across Edinburgh and Midlothian, attending events like dementia cafes and local gala days. “If we hear about it, we try to go”, Charmaine enthuses “We have our bright yellow t-shirts on, so we should be easy to spot, so come along and talk to us”.
Looking towards the future, VOCAL hope that by reaching out in the community and building awareness of their services they will be able to assist over 15,000 carers per year by 2026 to “feel supported in their role and empowered to lead their own lives”.
Baillie Gifford staff voted for VOCAL to become the firm’s new charity of the year. To find out more visit VOCAL’s website.