More needs to be done to help the UK's seven million carers and improve the current system that waits for them to ask for help, which is usually when they are already "on the brink of a crisis", a report has warned.
Healthwatch said its findings paint a "stark picture" of what it is like trying to find and access, with its analysis of waiting time data in England showing that on average people wait two months between contacting their local authority and actually being able to access services.
It said that while this is not an excessive amount of time in its own right, for those seeking an assessment when already approaching a point of crisis these waits can cause incredible stress.
While councils have a duty to support local carers, the research also found gaps in the data collected by many local authorities, with 51 of the 152 councils asked unable to provide a recent idea of how many carers lived in their area and 72 unable to say how long carers on lists had been waiting.
Healthwatch said more consistent and better data is urgently needed if local authorities are going to reach out to carers earlier and make a successful case for the necessary resources to meet local demand.
According to the charity Carers UK, unpaid carers currently contribute £132 billion pounds worth of care support to family and friends.
This is more than seven times the £17 billion councils spend annually.
It is estimated it would take four million extra full-time paid social care staff to cover the work of unpaid family carers.
Healthwatch said its report was compiled using the views and experiences of 5,447 carers from 27 communities across England.
It said many of those who shared their stories found support services difficult to find, and they often only found out about the help on offer by chance or at a point when they had already started struggling.
Often the result is that the person being cared for suffers, sometimes ending up in hospital or a residential care home. This can limit their independence, affect their quality of life and ultimately cost the NHS and social care sector more money.
Carers themselves are also affected, having to give up work or becoming ill themselves. The emotional toll of being a carer - in particular the feelings of guilt around not being able to cope - can also leave lasting scars.
Healthwatch England national director Imelda Redmond said: "This new research highlights the hard work being done and sacrifices being made by carers the length and breadth of the country. Quite simply, their efforts help keep the NHS and social care afloat.
"But the demands on carers are only going to grow over the coming years, as their numbers swell and our society ages.
"At the moment we have a system that waits for people to ask for help, which usually comes when they are on the brink of a crisis. To support carers effectively services need to be much more on the front foot."
She added that the Government's green paper on social care, which is expected later in the autumn, provides a "brilliant opportunity" to recognise the contribution carers make and make plans to ensure they get the support they need.
Glen Garrod, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, said: "We would encourage carers to identify themselves to councils who can provide advice and information and help assess their circumstances to see how best they can be supported.
"There are great examples of council care teams that work hand-in-hand with carers as people often prefer to receive care from those they know, and councils assess the needs of carers to ensure they are supported to continue.
"It is deeply regrettable that adult social care directors find themselves facing difficult choices, against a backdrop of insufficient funds to support carers in their area to the extent they would like to be able.
"This is one of many reasons that the Government should bring forward its green paper, complete with a long-term funding solution for social care, as soon as possible."
Councillor Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the Local Government Association's Community Wellbeing Board, said: "Unpaid carers are the backbone of the care system, many of whom are unable to take a break, putting their own health on the line. Without these unsung heroes the system would collapse.
"With people living longer, increases in costs and decreases in funding, adult social care is at breaking point.
"Over recent years, councils have protected adult social care relative to other services. But the scale of the overall funding picture for local government means adult social care services still face a £3.5 billion funding gap by 2025, just to maintain existing standards.
"The likely consequences of this are more and more people being unable to get quality and reliable care and support, which enables them to live the lives they want to lead."
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