Carers Support Merton CEO Tracy Weight explains how the timely rollout of a new IT strategy at the end of 2019 helped her team respond to the pandemic and keep on delivering for Merton’s carers.

Reflecting on the year just passed, a global pandemic was the last thing on our minds at Carers Support Merton when we started developing a new digital strategy. But all the planning, preparation and, at times, painfully hard work upgrading our antiquated IT and telephone systems just over a year ago paid off when in March Covid-19 forced us to switch our entire team to remote working and service delivery at short notice and we were able to keep phone lines to carers open.

When the Vestry Hall and with it, our office, closed it was business as usual for CSM. Our 17-strong, agile team equipped with laptops and soft phones adapted seamlessly to WFH, though many staff found themselves juggling their work supporting unpaid carers in Merton with caring for and home-schooling their own children.

Digital transformation

We little realised when we set out our new digital strategy just how much it would help us to improve the efficiency of all our operations from service delivery, fundraising and administration, to evidencing the outcomes and measuring the impact of our work. Most importantly it enabled us to provide a service in lockdown.

We are indebted to the Wimbledon Nursing & Midwifery Benevolent Fund whose generous financial support made this digital transformation possible.

The pandemic meant we had to get to grips with the new system and take full advantage of it, learning at pace.  As a result, the team began cooperating more closely than ever before and with an even greater sense of purpose. As the year progressed it has been exciting to harness the system’s capabilities and the opportunities it offers to transforming the way we work and how digital technology has opened participation for carers whose responsibilities often prevent them joining activities in person.  

Hard to believe it now when all our interactions are mediated by a screen, but back in March when I led our first online staff team meeting it was with great trepidation and with the video function switched off. Most staff are part-time and work flexible hours. Pre-pandemic in a normal week, it was rare that we would all catch glimpses of each other.  Meeting weekly since lockdown and being able to see each has been one of the unexpected bonuses of working alone together and has really helped the team to bond in adversity!

Supporting carers in the pandemic

Our telephone support line has been a lifeline. Early in the pandemic we began fielding calls from some very anxious and distressed people.  It is was a worrying time for everyone, but carers, many of whom are themselves elderly, have additional worries: about how to shield their vulnerable loved ones; if they fall ill, what will happen to the person they look after; and how to cope if the paid-for personal care givers they depend on can no longer visit their home. Those worries have not gone away.

Nine months on, and the crisis isn’t over for carers. At time of writing London has just gone into the highest Tier 3 restrictions.  Earlier this month, Carers UK reminded Government that, “Going forward it is imperative that under all tiers, we see day and support services opening up safely again so that carers and the people they support can get the formal help they desperately need.”

we know Carers are running on empty and still struggling to have the massive contribution they make to the nation recognised.

Latest research from Carers UK Caring Behind Closed Doors Six Months On, reports that

  • 4 in 5 unpaid carers (81%) are currently providing more care than before lockdown.
  • More than three quarters (78%) of carers reported that the needs of the person they care for have increased recently.
  • Most carers (64%) have not been able to take any breaks at all in the last six months.
  • More than half (58%) of carers have seen their physical health impacted by caring through the pandemic, while 64% said their mental health has worsened.

Here in Merton, we estimate there are at least 20,000 unpaid carers, Covid-19 has already brought increased demand for our services.

At the beginning of the first lockdown, we launched ‘Care Calls’ to check-in on every one of the 3,100 Carers registered with us– a mammoth task - to provide advice, support and reassurance. But we know calling someone who is feeling isolated and vulnerable can make a big difference and help to reduce anxiety. The Care Calls also helped us to identify specific problems carers were facing.

We adapted our Carers Assessments to be made over the phone and to reflect and acknowledge challenges carers face coping with the pandemic. We have also provided carers with an emergency planning template in case they are taken ill themselves.

Now a private Facebook group gives carers a space to chat, share ideas, give mutual support, and let off steam if they need to with others in a similar situation.

We remained in touch with young carers, many of whom are missed the support of their schools.  The young carers' after-school art club that began in February continued to flourish at home with the support and encouragement of staff who created a gallery for their work on the CSM website. We are very excited that our Young Carers Mentoring project which was postponed by Covid will now launch in January.

Using Zoom we were able to relaunch some of our most popular face-to-face activities online and added new ones.

We will resume our normal activities for Carers as soon as we can, but we have always been conscious that many Carers, with limited time to themselves cannot always participate in the activities and workshops we provide at the times we offer them. This is particularly true of working carers.

Digital Champions

Our goal is to put as many of our services online as possible, not to replace face-to-face contact but to extend our reach to the most isolated and to make our services more easily available and inclusive. To that end we are launching a Digital Champions project in the New Year with the goal of bringing the most isolated carers online in 2021.

Make time for carers

For carers, some things never change. “78% unpaid carers are seeing the needs of the person they care for increase and 74% are worn out and exhausted." . No wonder all Merton carers want for Christmas is the gift of time. Not just time for themselves, but for the world to make time for them. Time to be heard, acknowledged and valued. That’s why at year’s end we are asking all our supporters to make time for carers by supporting our All I want for Christmas... campaign.

Like many charities in the UK, our biggest worry is how we will meet increased demand for our services when we face a significant downturn in income.  The pandemic struck after an already lengthy period of austerity and turbulence for the public sector.  We have pared back our costs wherever we possibly can but with fundraising events cancelled for the foreseeable future, and many of our supporters and local businesses now facing financial hardship, we expect to lose a significant proportion of our income with which to support carers.

Nevertheless, we intend to do our best to support Merton’s Carers through these uncertain times and meet the challenges that lie ahead, confident that CSM will emerge from the crisis more resilient, resourceful and ambitious than ever before.


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