It makes your week feel fuller. You’ve got a purpose tomorrow.”

Della, Carers UK member

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Carers UK knew many of their members would be struggling as local respite and day services shut down and health services became more difficult to access.

As part of Nesta’s Accelerating Ideas programme, Carers UK had been expanding its team of community-based volunteers, but the pandemic meant this work had to pause and the team started to work on supporting carers remotely.

Building on an initial pilot, the organisation developed plans for online support sessions for carers - Care for a Cuppa was born. Meanwhile, Della O’Brien joined Carers UK. At home with her husband Jim, who needed full time care after a stroke, Della heard about the new Care for a Cuppa sessions and decided to give them a try:

“We were in the first lockdown in March, and we didn’t hold a conversation with a soul… I just Googled ‘carers’ to see if there was anything out there, and that is basically how I found it and I just registered as a member.”

Both staff and members were a little apprehensive at first. Staff were concerned about managing a regular “live” online space, particularly as their text-based online Forum has sometimes become quite difficult to manage. Many carers, like Della, were nervous about using Zoom. However, staff sent guidance and were on hand to talk:

“If I was stumbling with an obstacle of trying to do it, I just emailed and they’d talk me through it. [..] I was dead nervous at the beginning, because I’d never done a Zoom.”

Care for a Cuppa has proved very popular and effective. Staff facilitate the sessions, moving into breakout rooms if numbers rise beyond 12. While facilitators sometimes suggest a theme for discussions, the best sessions flow after an initial round of introductions, as Della explains:

“You just unmute yourself if you’ve got something to say. You can put your hand up and just say something, and it’s loads of interaction really. Say you’re talking about a topic, but I know something that might help you, I can just go and say ‘Why don't you do this?’”

The peer support provided during Care for a Cuppa sessions has proved enormously valuable.

“When you become a carer, it’s like a totally new world… and carers, we all understand one another. You have to be a carer to understand how it feels… I’d say to a new carer, ‘Do it.’ It’s the best thing you could possibly ever do and it’ll be your lifeline and you won’t look back, and I’d encourage anybody.”

Many carers have become “regulars” since April, but new people continue to join. Sessions are promoted through social media, member communications and other channels. Alongside Care for a Cuppa, Carers UK also run Share and Learn sessions - themed Zoom sessions on everything from welfare rights and benefits to Latin Dance. There are also sessions for specific groups, including carers from ethnic minorities and male carers.

Carers UK’s experience during the pandemic has demonstrated the significant need for, and power of, peer support among carers. Many carers feel isolated and anxious when they join the groups, but connecting with others lifts the burdens of navigating complex systems, and dealing with the emotional strains of caring, as Della attests:

“It lifts that weight because you’re holding it in all the time, and you’ve not had anybody to talk to, and it’s just nice. It’s nice to have problems shared and to talk to people who get you and who have got empathy for each other.”

Looking to the future, Carers UK recognise that many carers will continue to need remote peer support, regardless of pandemic restrictions lifting. Della is clear about this:

“Forget the pandemic, we’re housebound. We can’t get out…. So, this is our life. Forget pandemic. We would always want this.”

Three-year funding has already been secured to develop the programme further and the team are excited about the future.

Carers UK are one of eight organisations supported through Nesta’s Accelerating Ideas programme. Over the last five years, Nesta has worked in partnership with National Lottery Community Fund to scale up eight innovations that help people to age well, feel connected to others and be part of active, engaged local communities.

You can read more about the Accelerating Ideas programme here.

You can read more about Carers UK’s National Volunteering Programme here