Showing that they care
IN today’s world, people who care for others are appreciated, both in a financial sense and emotionally. For a past generation of people, such support could only be dreamed about. Caring - or looking after as it used to be known - came with the territory of being a daughter-in-law or an un-married daughter. The woman that married into a family was expected to take care of her husband’s parents, while the same responsibility frequently fell on the shoulders of the daughter who stayed at home. She didn’t always stay at home by choice, but the pressure from her siblings may have been so intense that she felt she had little option.
Today, most caring still appears to be carried out by women and, in the vast majority of cases, the care is given to an elderly relative. In recent times there has been a huge surge of public and professional concern about family members that care for frail, elderly relatives. Families have been recognised as providing enormous amounts of assistance to older relatives with physical and cognitive impairments.
A person can become a carer for many reasons – distance, availability, household composition, level of dependency and obligation. One study found that carers could spend up to 50 hours per week carrying out their duties. When one factors in that the average industrial working week now is between 35 and 40 hours a week, the actual commitment of the carer becomes apparent.
Given this level of commitment, it should not be surprising to hear that carers can be affected by their caring duties. It is not uncommon for stress to be caused by both physical and mental caring. If the carer is old and perhaps not in good health, it can be a monumental task from a physical perspective. The physical exertion involved with lifting, changing, turning a bed-ridden person can overwhelm their ability to physically cope with the level of care that is imposed on them.
The carer’s mental wellbeing could depend on whether he/she is caring through choice or out of obligation. If it is from duty then the carer can feel isolated when other members of the family appear unco-operative and unavailable. Caring without respite can be very, very stressful. The care-giving period can last from weeks to years but it could be made bearable if there was support from family and formal services, with regular respite.
The Carers’ Charter was launched in 1991 and was compiled to provide a clear statement of the rights of carers. Based on the UN Charter of Human Rights, it sets out the support required to enable carers to continue to care in a way that ensures a high quality of life for both themselves and their dependants.
Anne cared for her mother for over ten years. In all that time she was confined to bed. For ten years Anne never had a night away, never had a holiday and only left the house when there was someone there to make sure her mother was alright. She told me that when she was caring for her mother, who is now dead, her entire life revolved around it.
“It’s a total commitment, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s no respite and when I was caring for my mother, my entire life revolved around it. It occupies your mind and no matter what you do, you can’t get away from it. It’s so hard to switch off from it.
“And there’s no preparation for it. Minding an elderly person is similar in a way to minding a baby, except the baby progresses and you see that all the time, whereas the opposite is the case with the elderly person. And yet, while it was difficult and physically and mentally stressful, it was still remarkably fulfilling and if I was presented with the same set of circumstances in the morning, I would do it all over again,’’ she said.
Not all carers are women, however, and not all care-giving is for elderly people. There is a substantial number of people who are opting to give up their work to care for their ill children at home. One such man, who asked me to maintain his privacy, told me that the work he is doing now in his home is the most fulfilling work he’s ever done. At the same time it’s the most exhaustive. “I feel privileged in many ways that I can be at home for the most important years of their lives. But it’s hard work, hard. You can’t switch off for a second because there’s always something to do so at the end of the day, I’m usually exhausted. What can you do though other than mind your children as well as you can? I wouldn’t have it any other way.’’