Unpaid carers are being hailed as the unsung heroes of the National Health Service as it prepares to celebrate its 70th birthday.

Dawn Kenyon, of Carlisle Carers, and Craig Backhouse, of Furness Carers, are using Carers Week 2018 to raise awareness of the role these individuals play, and how they are propping up the NHS.

The pair, who are both part of Carers Support Cumbria, work to represent carers across all parts of the county.

According to Carers UK 6.5 million people in the UK are unpaid carers - roughly 10 per cent of the entire population - and this number is continuing to increase each year.

In Cumbria, more than 56,000 are now carers - and over 10,000 of these provide care for more than 50 hours a week.

Unpaid carers mainly look after family members, including partners, elderly relatives or children with additional needs. There are also many young carers - usually children who look after their parents.

Dawn and Craig said that without this often unseen army working behind the scenes, the NHS would struggle to stay afloat.

As the NHS turns 70, they want to see even more support for carers going forward, and more involvement in shaping services.

“Unpaid Carers have always been a part of the success of any health and social care services provided.

"Without the dedication and commitment of family and friends working in tandem with NHS and social care services to assist with speedy recovery and rehabilitation of loved ones, our NHS and our social care services would surely fail," said Dawn.

"We celebrate with the NHS its 70 years of service, but we must never forget our unpaid carers who provide unpaid 24/7 support often in isolation and without any support in an economy of cuts and less and less in the way of support services.

"We must work harder at making our carers support meaningful and relevant, and we must certainly make sure carers are at the forefront of service provision. Without them the future is very bleak for all of our services.”

Craig said he is pleased that the Department of Health and Social Care has released it’s long awaited Carers Action Plan 2018-2020.

He said this covers a number of key areas of support for carers relevant to the Carers Week theme, healthy and connected.

Craig described it as a "good start", but said more work - and particularly financial support - will be needed from the Government as it drafts its Green Paper on Social Care.

Among those working in the NHS to support these selfless individuals is carers' champion Jennifer Bell.

A trainee assistant practitioner in the Eden Memory and Later Life Service, part of the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, she is encouraging other health and care professionals to think about the carer and make sure they are getting the support they need.

“Unpaid carers are an amazing local resource and there is so much support available to them through carers’ organisations – such as Eden Carers who I work with," she said.

"My role as a carers’ champion is to make sure that carers accessing our health services are aware of this support.

“I have worked with Eden Carers for around 15 years through various health and care roles. During this time we’ve built up good relationships so becoming a carers’ champion last year felt like a natural next step.

"I initially did two hours of training, learning more about the role of carers and the services Eden Carers offer, and now keep up to date with any developments."

She added that not everyone who looks after a relative or friend realises they are actually a carer - and might not access support.

“Not all carers see themselves as such, so part of my role is to look for opportunities where Eden Carers can help.

"I encourage everyone to try out the carers’ support group. Caring can feel very lonely so having the opportunity to talk to others in a similar position can make a big difference.

"It’s really important to encourage carers to look after their own health and wellbeing, to prevent carer strain becoming detrimental. Unpaid carers have an essential role in our communities and working together is crucial to ensure they get the support they need.”

Dani Leslie, chief officer at Eden Carers, added: “Carers’ champions identify and support previously unidentified carers and raise the profile of the work we do to enable more people to access our services.

"Health professionals come into contact with carers on a daily basis so they are well placed to take on this role. The work Jen does is invaluable and we hope sharing her story will encourage others to do the same.”

The county's other carers organisations also work closely with the NHS to identify carers and ensure they get support.

For example, West Cumbria Carers work with the discharge team at the West Cumberland Hospital and spend time on wards at visiting time so their staff get to know carers ahead of patients going home.

And it is not just those with physical health issues that have carers. Carlisle's Carleton Clinic also has strong links with Carlisle Carers to ensure those caring for people with mental health problems access support, with carers' champions now on wards and in crisis teams.

Stephen Eames, chief executive of the Cumbria Partnership and North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “This work is an excellent example of health, care and third sector organisations working closer together to benefit people in Cumbria.

"Unpaid carers play an essential role in our communities and by working together we can ensure they can access the support that’s available to them to help them to stay well.

“It is the ambition of our Integrated Care Communities (ICCs) to increase the number of projects like these, where we work as one system to provide seamless care for all those who come into contact with our services. We will continue to implement the lessons learned to benefit more people and create happier and healthier communities.”

Copeland MP Trudy Harrison - who herself worked as a home carer in the past - is set to meet local care home staff and volunteers.

As part of Carers Week, she has arranged to visit a number of care homes in her constituency in the coming weeks and months.

Mrs Harrison, said: “Having previously worked as a home carer I know first-hand the long hours and physical demands of the job, I also appreciate the enormously rewarding aspects of care.

“Our society is wholly dependent on carers both paid and unpaid and I want to visit as many homes as I can over the summer to both understand the challenges, help where I can and sincerely thank the highly professional, kind and committed workforce which we will all depend upon.”

Mrs Harrison will begin the series of visits in Whitehaven on Friday, followed by Cleator Moor and Egremont on Sunday, with further visits confirmed in Keswick and Millom over the summer months.

This Carers Week, Furness Carers are highlighting the work local charities and support services that work to improve the health and wellbeing of carers.

The organisation says caring can be a hugely rewarding experience, but sometimes carers find it challenging to take care of their own well-being whilst caring.

To help change that, they are holding an 'In It Together' event on Friday at Hindpool Community Centre, between 10am and 12pm.

The event will be a chance for carers to find out more about the support that's available from a wide range of partners.