Right now in Australia, there are millions of unpaid carers looking after loved ones who can’t take care of themselves. They are mums, dads, grandparents, and even children as young as eight years old. It’s an exhausting task – physically, emotionally and mentally. But when they need help, who cares for the carers?
“The Australian Government says there are about 2.7 million carers in this country,” says Ronnie Benbow, the Founding Director of The Carers Foundation Australia. “But those are just the carers that are registered with the government – there are also a lot of carers out there that aren’t registered. They don’t identify as carers; they just see it as their responsibility to care for their loved one at home.
“Realistically, we think there are probably one in ten people in Australia who are caring for somebody at home. So if you’ve got 30 people in your workplace, there are probably three people that are also carers. And it’s the same at school, because there are a lot of young carers out there. In a class of 30 kids, there are probably three kids who are caring for somebody at home.
“And the thing is, most people are totally unaware that they exist. The people they see at work and at school have no idea of the sacrifices they’re making for their loved ones. These are the hidden heroes in our society, and they do what they do out of love. But at the end of the day, it can be detrimental to their own health.”
Founding The Carers Foundation
Ronnie, who spoke at the latest installment of the Brisbane Business Hub’s On The Couch series, knows firsthand the toll that serving as a carer can take. A Registered Nurse with a degree in Health Science, she also cared for husband, Michael, after a near-fatal accident that left him temporarily paralysed from the neck down; one of her four sons, who suffered from a debilitating medical condition; and her elderly parents.
Ronnie and Michael began hosting retreats to help unpaid carers relax and recharge 15 years ago, paying for the expenses out of their own pockets. After the death of Ronnie’s father, she decided to make this charity work official, and founded The Carers Foundation in 2015. “I wanted that to be my father’s legacy,” she says.
The only charity program that provides wellness programs to support carers of all ages, The Carers Foundation hosts retreats for adult carers in the tranquil surrounds of Cedar Creek, as well as programs for young carers (between the ages of 13 and 19) in Samford Valley. The programs are available at no cost to eligible carers.
“We see carers arrive who are totally disengaged, they’re depressed, they’re at the end of their tether,” Ronnie says. “They’re totally exhausted. But after they leave the retreat, they’re empowered. They’re engaged. They’re feeling connected. It honestly changes their life.
“It’s particularly rewarding to see those outcomes with the young carers. They’re so depressed when they arrive, and then all of a sudden they’re meeting people who can relate to their experiences. They’re making new friends, sometimes for the first time in their life. Just seeing them be able to have hope for their future… that keeps me inspired.”
As the Founding Director, Ronnie is supported by a Board, active Ambassadors, and a qualified team of professional therapists, counsellors and dedicated volunteers.
“We screen everybody that’s part of the Foundation team to make sure they all have lived experience as a carer,” Ronnie says. “It’s important they have that, because it’s the only way to know what it really feels like. You just can’t get it unless you’ve been there – the exhaustion, the level of despair you can go through. The days when you think, ‘How am I going to get through today?’ Some days, when you’re looking after somebody, it’s just a matter of getting through it hour by hour.”
Helping the helpers
Ronnie has been recognised for her tireless efforts with a nomination for the 2021 QLD Australian of the Year, and was also named the Moreton Bay Citizen of the Year. She’s a busy woman – so busy, in fact, that she often forgets to take her own advice.
“I really don’t look after myself very well,” she admits. “My sons are good about pointing that out to me – they’ll say, ‘Mum, when are you going to practice what you preach? When are you going to start doing what you tell everyone else to do?’ But I do try to find time for myself. I do what I can when I can, and I’m getting better at it now.
“The older I get, I’m not bouncing back as quickly as I used to when I was younger. I used to be able to hit the wall and say, ‘Yeah, it’s okay, I’ll be right in a week’. But that doesn’t happen anymore. I have to be conscious of taking time out, and looking after myself.”
Of course, it’s easier for Ronnie to relax when she knows The Carers Foundation has the funds it needs. A registered charity with full tax deductibility, the Foundation relies on donations and grants to support its programs, and needs all the help it can get.
“We’re always looking for people to help us,” Ronnie says. “We would love to have more people involved, any time and in any capacity – whether it’s a financial donation; donating services or products that we can give to our carers; or volunteering to help out at our workshops and fundraising events. We’re always grateful for anything that anybody can do to help us.”
Ultimately, though, it’s the carers themselves that Ronnie is most grateful for.
“For all the carers out there, if you’re not coping, we are here to help you,” she says. “What you do is so challenging. It’s so isolating. But if you contact us at The Carers Foundation, if you register for our programs, we’ll connect you with other people facing similar situations and we’ll provide you with the support you need.
“You need to do this for yourself, because you deserve it. You deserve to be looked after.”