A project delivering support and solidarity for local people who have been taking on the role of caring for a loved one, has been officially launched in Derry.
The HUGS group has been set up by the Pink Ladies and is open to everyone who is caring for, or has cared for, someone with any long-term illness or a carer who is going through an illness themselves.
The Pink Ladies began hosting carers’ meetings several years ago and following a lot of groundwork the HUGS group has now been establised.
Speaking at the Valentine’s Day launch of the project on Wednesday, members spoke of how beneficial it has been for them and urged others to join them at their monthly meetings in Bishop Street Community Centre.
Pink Ladies Project Development Worker and breast cancer survivor, Michelle McLaren, said she realised there was a need for a carer’s service as she went through treatment.
“For me, when I woke up in the morning, my mind didn’t say ‘I have cancer;’ it said ‘I have to be a mammy’ and it was trying and difficult.
“While going through treatment, I started to meet other mammies who were the same. But cancer always came second to being a mammy and it comes second when you are a carer to somebody else.
“Then I started looking at the people who were looking after me; my partner, my sisters, my father and I thought, ‘Where’s their support in this?’
“Without my partner, my sisters, my father and my children, all they did for me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. People don’t realise how precious they are.
“You worry about everybody because cancer, or any type of illness or degenerative condition, affects the entire family.”
Michelle said that getting advice and support from someone who is, or has been, in the same carer role is invaluable. Explaining the concept of HUGS, she said: “A hug is something that is there when you are feeling down and lonely and just need it, whether it is to show love, affection or support.
“It stands for Helping Us Get Stronger. I thought that is a nice title for a group of carers to come together, and help themselves get stronger.
“By launching on Valentine’s Day we wanted to highlight the love and care people feel for each other. It can be all hearts and chocolates and flowers, but sometimes just being there is enough.
“It’s about knowing that they are not alone; that there are other people in the same situation. Some people don’t see or recognise themselves as a carer. I didn’t see myself as a carer, but I was.
“The group is open to everybody with regards to any type of illness; someone who is caring for somebody or who had been caring for somebody for a long period of time and they may have passed on or gone into residential care Now there is that void of not having that person to care for. There can be that feeling of loneliness and isolation because that has been their life. We all do it because we love the person, but you have to look after yourself.”
Maureen Collins, Manager of the Pink Ladies, said a lot of work had been undertaken to develop programmes specific to the needs of carers ahead of the official launch this week.
Maureen said: “We always believed carers were a really important part of the cancer survivor’s journey and because there’s other life-limiting, life threatening conditions so we decided to open it up to carers for all conditions, should it be somebody caring for an elderly family member, caring for adults with learning disabilities, caring for children.
“It is going from strength to strength and we are hoping the launch will raise that profile even higher.
“The best thing a carer can give is to let the person know that he or she is not alone. We say to people when they join the group, ‘If you are not looking after yourself and you are not fit and well and coping, then it is more difficult to care for somebody else’.”
Maureen heaped praise on Derry City & Strabane District Council for its support via their the Small Community Grants, which has allowed the Pink Ladies to develop the carers’ group, and also the CLEAR Project (Public Health Agency) and Big Lottery Fund for providing support this year.
“We are delighted because it shows that even funders along with groups like ourselves are recognising the valued work that carers are giving,” she said.
“Carers save the government billions of pounds each year and they are working for 27 pence an hour. The rate they get is £62.70 a week in Carer’s Allowance and if they are in receipt of benefits it is even less. This is reviewed every April and one of the benefits that is not always increased“
Maureen and Michelle are also looking at a Youth Carer’s Forum for teenagers who take on the caring role either with regards to the parent or their siblings, as well as for teenagers who may have lost their parents and are being raised by grandparents or other relatives. A programme for the new Youth Forum has already been designed with the support of a local professional counsellor, focusing on mental health through art therapy.”
Speaking at the launch on Wednesday, the members spoke of the invaluable support they have received through H.U.G.S. as they urged others to come along.
One member described the group was “a chance to get together with other members and hopefully now new members as well.”
“You feel as if somebody cares,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there who are caring and might think there is nowhere for them to go. We want to reach out to them.”
Another member added: “Here you can talk to people who understand and know what it is like to be a carer and you can vent to them instead of the person you are caring for and talk through issues and ideas.”
The group meet on the first Thursday of every month in Bishop Street Community Centre from 7pm to 9pm.
*Anyone who would like to join HUGS can come along to their next monthly meeting or telephone the Pink Ladies on 028 71414004.