With over 200 blogs on D4Dementia, some of them now 7 years old, I’ve decided to spend my 2019 year of blogging by re-visiting some of the topics I’ve covered previously, throwing fresh light on why they remain relevant, and updating them with some of my more recent experiences. This month, I want to look at the reality of being an unpaid family carer.
I’ve blogged for Carers Week every year since D4Dementia began, and while I was looking back at the start of D4Dementia for the blog’s 7th birthday, I revisited the two blogs I published during Carers Week 2012.
‘The carer’s job description’ was the more hard-hitting of the two, highlighting the relentless and exhausting aspects of being an unpaid family carer, while ‘Be inspired, be very inspired’ was the complete opposite as I talked about how amazing carers are.
While many blog posts may be reactionary and news-led, these two stand the test of time with quotes that remain as true today as they were then. I began ‘The carers job description’ by saying:
“If you had to be isolated, unsupported and fight the system, would you apply to be an unpaid carer?”
The reality of isolation, lack of support and having to fight systems every step of the way is a story I have heard countless times since – often, of course, from family carers whose loved ones have dementia, but also from numerous people in other caring roles including carers whose loved ones have different health conditions, sandwich carers and parent carers.
I’ve seen carers break down talking about the struggles they face, and asking simple questions like, “Why can’t this be easier?” and, “I have no idea what to do and no one to ask.” In a public arena, arguably one of the most powerful carer stories I have ever heard came from Sheila Wainwright, excerpts of which I shared in my 2013 blog, ‘Caring for carers’:
“Sheila told of the ‘Shear daily misery’ of their life, how ‘No one’ answered her questions, and that over the years ‘Many people came and went, and came and went’ but there was simply no continuity of support for her or her husband. Sheila admitted that she was, ‘Planning how to end our lives before a call to the Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline saved my life.’ Her husband eventually passed away in hospital after an agonising end to his life, with Sheila movingly recalling the actions of a nurse as her husband was finally at rest, ‘That sprig of flowers put on his chest when he died was one kindness I will never forget.’”
I went on to say in ‘Caring for carers’:
“It can never be acceptable that we wait until someone’s death before we show kindness to their carer who has valiantly stood by their side as, in Sheila’s words, her husband, ‘Screaming and snarled, pooed in the shower and pushed it down the drain, lost the ability to walk and talk, and went from 13 stone to just 7 stone when he passed away.’”
Sheila’s story has stayed with me ever since, and has been joined by stories from many other carers, past and present, who I’ve met in the months and years since I wrote ‘Be inspired, be very inspired’ but who that blog could easily have been written about, particularly when I said:
“There is something that touches your soul when you hear the individual stories of how people care for those they love the most.”
These personal accounts are incredibly hard-hitting, but what we all need to appreciate is that while carer’s stories shape our understanding and provide an immensely powerful narrative that we’ve seen countless times, not least in the recent BBC Panorama programmes ‘Crisis in Care – Who Cares?’ and ‘Crisis in Care – Who Pays?’, for the people living those lives they are a real, raw reality, not something to read or watch, agree with and then at best leave the issues they raise at the bottom of society’s ‘to do’ list. As I said in ‘Be inspired, be very inspired’:
“If you are caring for someone right now, don’t ever underestimate the amazing contribution you make to society. Anyone who does not recognise that has never walked in your shoes, but may well do so one day and will then see just what this unique role entails.”
As the thoughts of charities, businesses and organisations turn to carers again for Carers Week, which is themed this year around isolation, the stats are stark:
- One in three unpaid carers (32 per cent) looking after a loved one who is older, disabled or seriously ill has felt lonely or isolated because they are uncomfortable talking to friends about their caring role.
- (32 per cent) say they feel socially isolated at work because of their caring responsibilities.
- (74%) feel their caring role isn’t understood or valued by their community. An unwillingness to talk about caring has for many carers created a barrier to their inclusion at work, home and in public life.
(Data from https://www.carersweek.org/media-and-updates/item/487547-carers-week-2019-launch)
Add in the human emotions that lie behind those statistics and I think we can all agree that more must be done to support carers. The problem, of course, is that those who understand what being a carer really means have been saying as much for years. When this will result in actual concrete support services that aren’t a postcode lottery remains to be seen, but those who ignore this issue do so at their peril.
There are currently 6.5 million people in the UK who are carers. Every day another 6,000 people take on a caring responsibility and there are predicted to be 9m carers by 2037. So, to quote a famous lottery slogan: “It could be you.”