In the United Kingdom, the importance of the informal care system has been highlighted under the background of the increasing demand for adult social care with an ageing population and the austerity policies implemented after the financial crisis (Glasby et al., 2021). Informal care generally refers to unpaid assistance given by non-professional carers, typically family members, friends, neighbours, colleagues, volunteers, and other members of one’s social networks (Zhang et al., 2021). This spectrum of care providers constitutes a vital, yet often underappreciated, element of the broader care network that supports older adults and those in need of assistance. A recent study by Petrillo and Bennett (2023) estimated that the value of unpaid care in England and Wales reached approximately £162 billion in 2021. This figure represents an increase of 29% since 2011.

While the Care Act 2014 formally designates local authorities with the responsibility of providing support to individuals with care needs, caring for older adults remains largely a familial responsibility due to constraints in resources. It is often expected that family members, particularly spouses and children, will step into care roles, when an older adult needs long-term support (Pickard et al., 2007). The last few decades have witnessed changes in family dynamics and societal structures. Smaller family sizes, heightened life expectancy, increased divorce rate, and greater geographical mobility have led to fewer available family carers (Fihel et al., 2022). Additionally, evolving social norms, coupled with a marked increase in women’s participation in the workforce, have impacted the supply of family care (Colombo et al., 2011). These factors, in addition to the high costs of formal care services, have led to a situation where an increasing number of older adults are now receiving care from neighbours, friends and other non-kin relationships (Broese van Groenou & De Boer, 2016). According to Wave 8 of the UK Household Longitudinal Survey, approximately 23% of individuals who were providing care to someone outside their household between the years 2016 and 2018 were supporting a non-kin relationship, constituting about 15% of all carers.

The existing body of literature on informal care tends to centre primarily on family carers or spans across all types of carers, thus leaving our comprehension of non-kin care notably deficient (Conkova et al., 2018). Most of the studies on non-kin carers examine the people who look for friends or neighbours (Lapierre & Keating, 2013; Pleschberger & Wosko, 2017). Several studies have established normative hierarchies of obligations for providing informal care to older adults (Cantor, 1979; Penning, 1990; Lapierre & Keating, 2013). These hierarchies are typically organised based on the type of relationship that exists between the carer and the care recipient. The relative order of relationships in these hierarchies is largely determined by differences in filial obligation and other social norms that influence obligations to provide informal care, with gender, geographical proximity and relationship closeness also playing a role. Within those hierarchies, non-kin are often at or near the bottom (Lapierre & Keating, 2013).

Several ‘legitimate excuses’ for not providing care have been recognised in existing research, including competing familial obligations, employment, and geographical distance (Finch & Mason, 1990). Older age has also been cited as a ‘legitimate excuse’ to abstain from providing care, with prior studies showing that non-kin carers are generally younger than their care recipients (Barker, 2002). This age discrepancy tends to widen with increased levels of care intensity. Barker and Mitteness (1990) interview 29 non-kin carers and reveal that 95% of them are at least a decade younger than the person they are caring for. The profile of non-kin carers predominantly comprises women and individuals who do not face competing obligations from marriage or employment (Pleschberger & Wosko, 2017; Barker, 2002). Furthermore, most of these carers reside in close proximity to the person for whom they are caring (Barker & Mitteness, 1990; Barker, 2002). Some studies have indicated that non-kin carers often possess fewer economic resources and lower educational levels compared to family carers (Himes & Reidy, 2000; Barker, 2002). This disparity could be linked to social class differences in friendship patterns and support exchange norms. Specifically, the exchange of support tends to be more prevalent among working-class communities as compared to their middle-class counterparts (Walker, 1995), which may consequently heighten the sense of obligation to provide care to non-kin within these groups.

The body of research examining the types of tasks performed by non-kin carers is noticeably limited. Studies on the role of non-kin carers have observed a variety of instrumental support tasks they undertake. These tasks encompass aiding with transportation, conducting shopping, preparing meals, performing sewing and mending chores, carrying out household repairs, and managing yard work (Boyce, 2006; Wenger, 1990). Non-kin carers are also found to help with more personal care tasks, such as managing personal hygiene and overseeing financial matters (Barker, 2002). Some literature asserts that personal care is so intimate and intensive that it cannot be easily substituted by non-family carers (Fihel et al., 2022). But non-kin carers do fulfil a multifaceted role by complementing familial or professional care (Pleschberger & Wosko, 2017). There exists a knowledge gap in understanding how the support extended by non-kin carers is compared to the care given by family members or professional carers. This comparative perspective is crucial to comprehensively understanding the dynamics of care provision (Conkova et al., 2018).

The United Kingdom has been taking steps to recognise and support non-kin carers over recent years, along with kin carers. The Care Act 2014, for instance, has widened the definition of a carer to include anyone who provides unpaid care to a person who is with an illness, disability, or mental health problem or an older adult. The care recipient can be a friend, a neighbour, a colleague, or a family member. This was a pivotal step towards acknowledging the role of non-kin carers in the care system. The Care Act 2014 also outlined the responsibilities of local authorities to assess the needs of carers, including non-kin carers, to determine if they are eligible for support. This includes taking into account the carer’s health and wellbeing, family relationships and their need to balance their care role with work or education. This shift in policy has been instrumental in broadening the scope of carer support, highlighting the importance of non-kin carers in the UK care system. However, the implementation and effectiveness of these policies may vary, and there is an ongoing debate around the sufficiency of support for all carers, both kin and non-kin, particularly in light of increasing demand due to an ageing population and resource constraints within the social care sector.

Non-kin carers play a vital role in contemporary care systems, providing essential care and support to individuals across various contexts. Recognising their contributions and addressing their needs is a crucial step in ensuring the wellbeing of both those receiving care and those providing it. As societal structures and norms continue to evolve, the role of non-kin carers is likely to become increasingly important, requiring ongoing attention from researchers, policymakers, and practitioners alike.