AROUND six million people in Britain care for sick or disabled loved ones. The Government's new National Carers Strategy, launched earlier this week, promises to recognise the efforts of these carers. But while the strategy has been broadly welcomed, some feel it does not go far enough. Reporter VALERIE COWAN spoke to one couple who will be affected by the plan.

RICHARD Day looks after his wife, Patricia, round the clock, seven days a week.

Patricia, 49, has rheumatoid arthritis in her spine, hips, knees and ankles and can only walk a few yards.

She also has high blood pressure and a condition which causes what she calls "mini-strokes".

They effectively make her mind "blank" for short periods, which makes it difficult for her to do anything which requires concentration.

Richard, 55, is one of those who should benefit from the Government's package of money and support, aimed at easing the burden on Britain's six million carers.

For him, any improvement will be welcome, as he has found that life as a carer can often be very frustrating.

He said: "Nobody tells you anything about what you are entitled to. You have to find out everything yourself.

"If you need a shower because you can't use the bath any more, it is a three or four year wait. It is the same for stairlifts.

"We are lucky in that we are both ex-forces - Patricia was in the Navy and I was in the Royal Air Force - and we have had some help from them but other people are not so lucky."

The Carers National Association is hoping that the new strategy will ensure all carers receive the help they need.

Acting chief executive Francine Bates said: "This is the first time we have had a commitment by the Government to funding and services. It means that carers are now firmly embedded in government social policy, and this we warmly welcome." But, she said, although the main principles of the strategy were sound, they had some concerns about how consistently the new services would be delivered to carers.

Richard, a former chef, shares her concern. He has been worn down over the years by the bureaucracy involved in the benefits system. On occasion, he admitted, he has been driven to tears.

Richard and Patricia's situation is made worse by the fact that Richard has health problems of his own.

He is diabetic, has varicose veins and Raynaud's syndrome, which restricts the blood flow to his fingers and toes, and last year he suffered two heart attacks.

But, he said, it was not uncommon for carers to suffer from ill health.

"You will find that most carers have something wrong with them. If it is not that they have had heart attacks through the stress of looking after a loved one, they have got arthritis across the shoulders or bad backs because they have been lifting their partners. Some even have breakdowns," he said.

Patricia's ill health, combined with his own, means they are severely limited in how they spend their time.

He said: "She can walk from the car to the front door and then that's it. She has got to sit down for quite a while.

"We have a wheelchair in the car for when we go out but I am no longer allowed to push it because I had two heart attacks last year, so we have to take someone else with us.

"We do try to go out but we don't go far because you are limited in what you can do."

They are also held back by a lack of money. They have around £150 a week to live on from benefits, and their rent, council tax and Motability car is paid for.

But they still have to pay their fuel bills - which are expensive because they are at home all day.

They are currently trying to get Patricia an electric wheelchair on the NHS. If they are turned down, they will not be able to afford to buy one. Despite everything, the couple, who live in Huncoat, believe they are lucky compared to many people.

Richard has the support of the Hyndburn Carers' Group, and was recently elected chairman. The group offers practical advice as well as a friendly listening ear, and a reminder to carers that they are not alone.

The couple also get help every day from social services so that Patricia can get washed, dressed and taken downstairs. They also receive help with cleaning and shopping once a week.

They are glad that the Government has looked at the needs of carers and see it as a step in the right direction.

But Richard is still unsure as to whether it will make any real difference.

"I can't honestly see this strategy having a lot of effect. The pension scheme that they have decided to give us will be £50 a week by 2050. I certainly won't be around to see that," said Richard.

He said the only thing that would make any real difference to carers' situations was a nationwide change in attitude to the disabled and those who look after them.

They still have to battle against prejudice - something which Patricia believes is getting worse instead of better.

She said: "People's attitudes have changed, but for the worse. When I am out I get people looking me up and down as if to say, you are too young to be in a wheelchair. You feel you shouldn't be there. They push you and knock you as if you are in the way."

Richard added: "If I have to go to the supermarket at the weekend there is no way I can get a disabled parking space, even although I have an orange badge. "There are so many people parking in the spaces who aren't disabled. Maybe they think we shouldn't go out at the weekend.

"Everybody says that if you are disabled you are a scrounger but you can't help it. It is just like when people take up disabled parking spaces. Would they like your disability as well?"

The Hyndburn Carers' Group can be contacted on 01254 301750. The Council for Voluntary Services in Blackburn, which organises a similar group for that area, can be contacted on 01254 583957.

THE new National Carers Strategy includes:

Second pensions for carers

A grant of £140million to help carers take a break

Council tax reduction for more disabled people and their carers

More carer-friendly employment

Support for young carers

Special help for disabled children

Support for neighbourhood services, including care centres

A new focus on local authority, health and other services taking carers' needs into account

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.