“SOMETIMES when he’s watching TV I curl up on the sofa and nod off. Then I wake up and think: ‘Is the day not over yet? Have I still got the night shift to do?’”

These were the words of a middle-aged woman on a TV report this week. Her husband had a stroke in late 2019, leaving him unable to dress, wash or feed himself, and she has spent the pandemic as his sole carer. “I’m exhausted,” she said. “But at least he is here.”

Anyone who is or has been a carer will know that, while it can be back-breakingly, nerve-shreddingly exhausting, a huge strain on your mental health, and incredibly lonely, it is also an act of love. Of course you don’t always see this at the time.

For over a decade I was a carer for my mum, and it felt like I had two jobs. By day I ran a busy features desk, and doing occasional weekend newsdesk shifts, and in the evenings I was tending to my mum, whose mind and body were closing down, leaving her bedridden and barely able to move. There’s no such thing as a saintly carer - I was often tired and snappy, resentful of friends who met their mums for lunch while I was stuck feeding mine like a toddler. And, while I was deeply saddened that dementia had ravaged my fabulous mum, there were times I silently cursed her for it. But she was still there, and I didn’t want to lose her.

By the time she died my dad was terminally ill, and I was a carer for him too. And when he died five months later, it took me a while to adjust to not being a carer anymore. It was part of my identity, I was lost without it. I left work one evening and felt so disorientated I could barely find the car park.

Being a carer is complex and exhausting. Those who care for loved ones sacrifice a lot, and don’t always see themselves as carers. There is great love that comes with caring - the woman on telly this week was shattered but relieved her husband was “still here” - but if carers don’t get enough rest, their own health is at risk. Like NHS and care home staff, unpaid carers have had a particularly gruelling pandemic - but they can’t clock off at the end of a shift.

This week is Carers Week and the focus is on the lack of breaks carers have been able to take in the past year, and the impact on their health, wellbeing and ability to lead a meaningful life outside caring. The charities supporting Carers Week - Carers UK, Age UK, Carers Trust, Motor Neurone Disease Association, Oxfam GB and Rethink Mental Illness - are calling on the Government to increase funding for carers’ breaks by a £1.2 billion. A cross-party group of MPs is urging the Prime Minister to provide emergency funding to local authorities for support services enabling unpaid carers to take a weekly break.

Research by Carers UK found that 72per cent of unpaid carers haven’t had a single break from caring throughout the pandemic. Carers lost on average 25 hours of support a month that they previously had from services or family and friends. And since March 2020, many more people have stepped up to look after elderly, disabled, ill and vulnerable loved ones.

The aim for Carers Week is to ‘Make Caring Visible and Valued’. There are more than seven million unpaid carers in the UK. You might not give them a second thought - but three in five people will become carers at some point. You could be one.

It’s time the Government recognised the enormous contribution of unpaid carers, and the pressure they take off the NHS, and give them the support they deserve. For many, it’s a case of having a break or a breakdown.