Carers in Northern Ireland – Some key statistics


The perceived underfunding of social care was a significant political issue in the recent general election. It is easy to forget, however, that the ‘formal’ care sector of nursing and residential homes, plus allied services, is underpinned by a much larger ‘informal’ sector of family and friends of the person being cared for. Last week, we examined the legislation and policy framework behind this sector. Here, we review the facts and figures relating to informal carers in Northern Ireland. A detailed paper on this topic was recently published by the Research and Information Service (RaISe).

Image of the word 'Care'
Image: Patient Care Technician via Creative Commons

Number of carers in Northern Ireland

Census 2011 defined a carer as a person who provides any unpaid help or support to ‘family members, friends, neighbours or others because of long-term physical or mental health or disability, or problems related to old age’.

On Census Day 2011, 214,000 people were providing some form of unpaid care, equating to approximately one-in-eight residents in Northern Ireland (12%). This compares with 185,066 in 2001, an increase of 16 per cent. Figure 1 shows that over half of unpaid carers (122,000, 57%) were providing care for between 1–19 hours per week, while 35,000 (17%) were engaged for 20–49 hours per week. Just over a quarter (56,000, 26%) had caring responsibilities for 50 or more hours per week. Using the latest 2015 mid-year population estimates, around 218,000 people currently have some form of caring role.


A bar chart showing the hours provided by carerers, from Census 2011
Figure 1: Carers in Northern Ireland, Census 2011


Census 2011 data reveals that the majority of carers lie within the 35–64 age band, with one third (33%) aged 35–49, and a further 31 per cent aged 50–64. There are also a significant number of young carers (those aged under 18). For example, 6,700 young people (aged 0–17) in Northern Ireland provide between 1 and 19 hours of unpaid care per week, while a further 960 provide 20–49 hours, and 820 care for 50 hours or more. There are also 11,300 older carers (those aged 75+), more than half (52%) of whom are engaged in caring for 50 hours or more each week. Given the steady rise in population since 2011, these figures are likely to be an under-estimate.

Carers: Who do they care for?

In 2016, data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT) revealed that a parent or a parent-in-law is the person most likely to be cared for, with more than four out of ten (44%) carers citing this as their main caring role. This was followed by a spouse or partner (29%), other relative (13%) and child (10%). Only 5 per cent cared for a person outside the family.

Carer’s Allowance

Carer’s Allowance (CA) is a non-contributory benefit for people who look after a severely disabled person for at least 35 hours per week. To qualify for the benefit (£62.70), the disabled person must be in receipt of either Personal Independence Payment, Disability Living Allowance or Attendance Allowance.

Table 1, below, shows an upward trend in CA claimants and recipients for the period 2012–2016. At November 2016, there were 46,090 people receiving Carer’s Allowance, a rise of 2,160 on a year earlier. Of these, 33 per cent were male and 67 per cent female.


Year Claimants Recipients Credits only
2012 62,220 38,230 23,990
2013 64,600 39,910 24,690
2014 67,540 41,780 25,760
2015 70,170 43,930 26,240
2016 72,630 46,090 26,540

Table 1: Carer’s Allowance claimants and recipients, 2012–16

Note: Persons in receipt of Credits only refer to those claimants who may be eligible for CA but do not receive it. This is because they receive another benefit which equals or exceeds their weekly rate of CA. Data refers to position at November each year. Source: Department for Communities (2017).

Issues facing carers in Northern Ireland

Carers UK carries out an annual survey of carers (State of Caring) to build a picture of caring in the UK. This section looks at some of the key issues raised by the survey, as well as findings from Census 2011.


Many carers report that caring results in a negative and often lasting impact on their general physical and mental health, but as with the rest of the population, some people with existing disabilities or long-term conditions also take on caring responsibilities. The 2011 Census shows that, in Northern Ireland, over 9,000 carers reported being in bad or very bad health, over half (52%) of whom were providing unpaid care for 50 or more hours per week.

Financial hardship

Taking on a caring role can result in a sharp reduction in household income, especially when the carer is forced to leave work, or reduce their hours to care for someone. The fall in income can be particularly steep if the carer is looking after a partner who has also left work as a result of illness or disability.

While a growing number of people provide unpaid care, freezes on most working age benefits, including Carer’s Allowance, means that carers are seeing no increase in their welfare payments, leaving them without the scope to manage rising costs.

The State of Caring 2016 survey, which included over 6,000 respondents throughout the UK, found that 44% are struggling to make ends meet, rising to nearly half (48%) of those caring for 35 hours or more per week.

Of those who are struggling to make ends meet:

  • Over a third (37%) are using savings to get by, suggesting that their ability to manage is unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term.
  • Almost two thirds (64%) cut back on seeing friends and family to cope.
  • Nearly half (48%) are cutting back on essentials, such as food and heating; 1 in 6 (16%) are falling into arrears with housing and utility bills; while others are borrowing money on credit cards (35%); taking out loans (13%); or borrowing from friends or family (30%).
  • A quarter of carers (26%) report that they have been, or are currently, in debt as a result of their caring role.

The survey found that concern about finances had a knock-on impact on carers’ own health also. Across all carers, whether they were struggling financially or not, 43 per cent reported a level of concern about finances that affected their own health. One respondent wrote:

Caring for someone and looking after our baby is a massive physical and emotional drain. Adding to this the stress of becoming increasingly in debt, and the knowledge that continuing along this path will end in eviction, and the inability to pay bills, eat and heat the property, causes stress for me and directly impacts on my partner’s health and wellbeing.

Welfare reform, including changes to disability benefits, may affect eligibility for Carer’s Allowance. For example, should the person being cared for currently claim Disability Living Allowance (DLA), but is deemed ineligible after reassessment for Personal Independence Payment (PIP), then the carer will no longer be eligible for Carer’s Allowance. A new mitigation scheme means that carers who suffer loss will receive a supplementary payment to cover the financial loss for a period of one year.

Caring and work

Census 2011 found that around one-in-seven (119,400, 15%) residents in Northern Ireland aged 16–74 in employment were providing unpaid care. Many working carers find they go months or even years without a proper break. Seven in ten (70%) respondents to the State of Caring survey said they used their annual leave to care and almost half (48%) have done overtime to make up hours spent caring. Nearly half (49%) of carers responding to the 2016 survey have given up work altogether to care. Almost a quarter (23%) reduced their working hours, while 17 per cent had to take a less qualified job, or turned down promotion to fit around caring. When asked what would make the difference in enabling more people to remain in work, more support from care workers coming to the home of the person they care for was the top choice of most carers (28%).

Young carers

Young carers are an important subset of the carer population, with around 6,500 young people (4%) aged under 16 engaged in various levels of caring in Northern Ireland. Results from the 2015 Young Life and Times survey indicate that grandparents are the people most frequently cared for (42%), followed by brother or sister (32%), mother (28%), father (10%) and others (10%). Some young people provide care for more than one person. An earlier survey in 2007 found an association between caring responsibilities and income, in that young carers were more likely to come from lower income families.


The number of carers in Northern Ireland rose by 16 per cent during the decade 2001–2011 to 214,000, and currently stands at around 218,000, or one-in-eight of the population. Around 4 per cent of carers are young people aged under 18. Increased life expectancy and an ageing population mean the demand for carers is projected to increase substantially in coming decades.