Sunday 26 June 2016


News feeds are awash in stories of the BREXIT referendum debacle in the UK.  Weak and deceitful campaigns on both sides of the argument about whether to leave the European Union or not resulted in a surprise victory by the 'Leavers', prompting the Prime Minister to resign.  The nation is wringing its hands, lamenting 'what have we done?'.  What does BREXIT mean for UK caregivers and what lessons can we draw for caregivers elsewhere?

Caregivers in the UK constitute roughly 10% of the population and more than 10% of that number provide more than 50 hours of unpaid care per week. One in five people between the ages of 50 and 64 are caregivers.

Half of working age caregivers live in a household where no one is in paid employment.  I mention this statistic because poverty is a huge social determinant of health. Caregivers who are poor are twice as likely to develop illness as their middle or upper income counterparts.

Our family lives in Canada now, but we've spent ten years living in London on account of my husband's job as a diplomat.  I recall attending a lecture on health inequality in 2009 given by the then UK Health Minister Alan Johnson.  To illustrate his point on how poverty impacts the health of families, he used this analogy: if you ride the London underground and get on a train at Bond Street (central London) travelling east all the way to Stratford, you will lose a year of life expectancy at every stop.  Stratford in east London has the same life expectancy as Guatemala. We know that poverty compounds the suffering of people with illness and disability as well their families. And with BREXIT, UK caregivers will suffer even more.

So many social ills have been revealed by this vote, many of them common to us in North America. Income inequality and the suffering it causes is just the tip of the iceberg. Young people in the UK overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU, while older people, many hankering after 'the good old days', voted to leave. This demographic rift has pitted not only the rich against poor, but the old against young. Today, a tweet appeared with a photo of an elderly woman with shopping bags crossing the street and the caption below "Dramatic drop in number of people helping elderly across the street since Brexit vote."

But it's not just the anger against older people that will harm caregiving families, it's the demographics of itinerant paid caregivers.  Pre-Brexit, the Guardian newspaper commented "The vision of tens of thousands of care workers packing their bags and heading home to other EU states after a British withdrawal is one that fills the hearts of many social care employers with dread."

No one doubts that BREXIT is disastrous for the UK economy in the short term and it's punched other world markets in the nose as well. But for caregiving families, the greatest concern is that a great bandage has been ripped off the skin of England and revealed a festering infection underneath. Income inequality and disenfranchisement in the face of extreme wealth in London and government leaders focused on their own political futures have put wind in the sails of populism, racism and isolationism. And it's no wonder.  And now, the bitter irony is that so many promises of the Leave campaign have already proven to be empty. People feel betrayed and frightened about the future.

My worry is that UK caregiving families will suffer more with poverty and lack of services as well as a lack of health care service providers than ever before.  The lesson of BREXIT for me is that we must join together to urgently give value to the natural care given by families and vote to ensure that infrastructure exists to support all our health care needs.

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