Supermarket staff to be trained to identify ‘hidden carers’

Sainsbury’s hopes scheme will improve support for those who look after elderly or sick relatives and neighbours

Supermarket staff are being trained to help identify “hidden carers” who look after elderly or sick relatives and neighbours without financial, emotional and practical support.

Sainsbury’s is coaching pharmacists and other workers about how to discreetly ask those collecting prescriptions on behalf of others or shopping with separate baskets before directing them to health professionals in the stores who might be able to help them.

The government-backed scheme is to be tested in 14 of the company’s London branches in the spring before being rolled out across England. This follows a successful experiment in the Torbay, Devon this year.

Jacki Connor, Sainsbury’s colleague engagement director, said at the time: “We learned that not only were many of our customers carers but a number of our colleagues working in store too. Simple initiatives like this can make a big difference … I hope that this new partnership will help increase awareness of an issue that affects millions of people across the country.”

The initiative is being backed by Carers UK. A spokesman for the charity said: “We have to get information to where people are in their normal lives. It could make all the difference between people getting vital help and missing out. People don’t automatically think there is support from the benefits system or the social care system.”

Customers of friendly corner shops might expect shopkeepers to inquire about their health or that of their families, he continued. “It is a case of transferring that community model into a supermarket model.”

The government is promising a better deal for family carers when it publishes plans for a shakeup of social care next year, saying they will be given new legal rights including over education and employment. It is hoping that major employers will ensure staff who are carers can ask for more flexible working arrangements.

Ministers are also keen to promote the idea of “carer champions” for GP surgeries to ensure that practices are more aware of family circumstances without breaching confidentiality. There are increasing concerns over the health of up to 6 million family carers, many of whom have little or no financial support and some of whom are still at school or studying.

The care services minister, Paul Burstow, said: “Without the support of relatives and friends, many people who aren’t able to look after themselves would not be able to stay at home. Carers should have their needs looked after as much as the person they are caring for.

“A carer’s health often suffers because they don’t have time to look after themselves. Some often don’t have time to eat properly. So it’s vital we support them to look after their health and wellbeing.

“We know that carer stress is one of the biggest triggers for admission to care homes. That’s why … we started work on reforming the social care system immediately after the election. We are bringing the many strands of work together – including a detailed listening exercise – and will publish a policy paper in the spring.”

The government has earmarked £400m between this year and 2014 for improved help for carers in England, including direct payments or personal budgets and supported breaks from caring. It is also piloting telemedicine, helping carers monitor the health of those they are looking after and their own health, including taking blood pressure or blood sugar levels and sending them on to professionals.