The following guest blog by Helena Herklots, Chief Executive of Carers UK, has been written to complement our new collection of essays, ‘Alone in the Crowd: Loneliness and diversity’.

There are 6.5 million people in the UK caring unpaid for an older or disabled family member or friend, and the numbers are increasing. The 2011 Census showed that there are nearly 1.3 million carers over the age of 65, a 35% increase since the Census in 2001, representing the fastest growing group of carers. The gender balance is also closer than you might suppose, as 42% of carers are men.

All of us, at some point in our lives, will either be carers, or need the help of carers. So if caring or being cared for is a near universal experience, how is it that being a carer can be so isolating and lonely? This is the experience of many carers I’ve spoken to in my work at Carers UK and is a theme in the body of research around caring.

The loneliness carers experience is caused by a range of circumstances, many of which are imposed on them. You may be so busy that you have no time or energy left to see friends and other family, or they may drift away as your life becomes so different from theirs. You may find the emotional demands of caring for a loved one and focussing on their well-being means that you neglect your own.

In our 2013 State of Caring survey 92% said that their mental health has been affected by caring. Research carried out for Carers Week 2013 showed that six out of 10 carers had found it difficult to maintain friendships; 42% had had a breakdown in a relationship with a family member, and 71% of carers were not prepared for the change in relationship with the person they cared for.

What can be done?  We need nothing less than a societal shift in recognition and understanding of caring. Although caring is a normal part of life, it is not seen as a shared experience. Contrast it with parenthood, where there is a societal understanding of a shared experience and an ease of talking about it with friends, at work, with family. We need to find ways to ‘normalise’ caring, so that it is acknowledged as the universal experience it is, and so that carers too are recognised, valued and supported.

How we care for each other is one of the biggest challenges we face as a society, and one of the most important things any of us do in our lives. We shouldn’t have to do it alone.

If you would like to read the full essay by Helena Herklots, or any of the other essays in our ‘Alone in the crowd: loneliness and diversity’ collection please follow this link.