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Here we explain what it means to be a carer and the many ways that the UK’s 6.5 million carers provide help and support for family members and friends.

Caring for a partner, relative or friend can be hugely rewarding, but it can be emotionally draining and isolating at times. If your caring responsibilities prevent you from carrying out a paid job, your financial situation may also be affected.

To help you find the information and support that you need, this guide discusses what it is to be an unpaid carer. On this page we give you information about:

1. What is a carer?
2. What does a carer do?
3. Caring duties

What is a carer?

Many people don’t think of themselves as ‘carers’. They see themselves simply as a husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter or friend looking after someone who they love.

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But if you provide regular unpaid help and support to a partner, relative or friend who’s struggling to cope alone, then you're a carer.

A carer is different to someone who provides care professionally, or via a voluntary organisation, because you have an emotional connection with the person you care for. This connection can make caring more rewarding, yet more difficult at the same time.

Caring may feel like a lonely job at times, but as a carer you are far from alone. There are 6.5 million carers in the UK right now and this number is rising. Research from Carers UK shows that three in five people will be carers at some point in their lives.

The UK’s ageing population means that an increasing number of people are caring for their parents. A 2015 report from the charity the Royal Voluntary Service, found that 28% of people with parents aged over 75 years said juggling work with their caring responsibilities added pressure to their lives. In addition, 30% believed that they needed external help, and one in five people said they felt guilty about not being able to do more to help older relatives.

What does a carer do?

Each carer’s role is unique. There is no set job description for a carer and your role will be shaped by the needs of the person you are caring for, the help that you provide and your personal circumstances.

A person might need care due to:

  • serious illness or injury (either on a short- or long-term basis)
  • physical or mental disability
  • reduced mobility (see our guide to Mobility aids)
  • mental health issues
  • dementia.

A carer can be anyone of any age. You might be a young adult supporting a parent, or you might be retired yourself, providing care for a partner, sibling or friend.

You might have to take on caring responsibilities overnight if a family member is taken ill. In other cases, your caring role may evolve slowly over time as the health of a friend or family member gradually declines.

How much time you spend caring will depend on your circumstances. If you are caring for your partner, another family member or friend in a shared home, you might provide help and support 24/7. If you live separately, you might spend a few hours a day with the person you care for, or just pop in once a week. In some cases, you might feel responsible for your friend or relative but live miles away. You might be the sole carer, or share caring responsibilities with several family members who help to look after the same person.

Recognising your role as a carer is an important step towards ensuring you get the right help and support. All carers are entitled to a free carer's assessment of their needs, and are protected by certain rights in the workplace. See our guide to Carers’ rights at work for more information.

Caring duties

A carer helps someone cope with day-to-day living. Depending on their condition, the person you care for might require more help on some days than others. All circumstances are different, but a carer might help with any of the following:

  • personal care: washing, dressing, taking medication
  • household tasks: shopping, cleaning, cooking, laundry
  • financial matters: dealing with bills, writing letters
  • supervision: watching over someone who can't be left alone
  • travel assistance: getting out and about, going to appointments
  • emotional support: friendship, listening and advice.

More information

  • Benefits for carers: find out about the various benefits you might be eligible for if you spend time looking after someone. 
  • Carers' rights at work: discover what you're entitled to in your workplace as a carer, with information on flexible working and more.
  • Arrange a break from caring: read about the options available, how to choose and finance respite care, and the difference this can make for you and the person you care for.
  • Talking about care options: our guide offers advice on having conversations about care options with a partner, family member or friend. 

Page last reviewed: July 2017
Next review due: January 2020