As it is carers’ week I have been reflecting on the role that carers play and I have decided to put my thoughts down. Partly because I think they might be of interest but also partly because I wanted to take some time to explore an aspect of caring that we may not always give our fullest attention to.
Caring seems to me to wrapped up in a number of powerful societal images. There is a sense of duty and stoicism about it, a classic “stiff upper lip” aspect. Spousal carers would often use the phrase “in sickness and in health” to explain why they were offering so much of themselves to the person they were caring for. As well as the sense of duty there is an aspect of love, the powerful emotional ties felt between people who care and people who are cared for, toward the end of my Fathers life my Mothers love for him was expressed in the affection she sowed while caring for him, their intimacy and shared experience was moving and affected everyone they came into contact with, right to the very end it was obvious that here was a couple who were in love and had the roles been reversed the same would have happened. It was touching and inspirational all at the same time.
As someone who has worked with carers, had some experience of caring and now teaches others it seems this pastoral element of caring is a characteristic of our society, it seems bound up with so many altruistic, powerful notions we have came to rely on carers without being full aware of the complexity of the role they play. On the surface carers are admired for their commitment and dedication, we encourage and support them and we dedicate weeks to them. We have a deep seated respect and admiration for them. This is perhaps related to our own awareness that it is unlikely we will never have some or all aspects of this role in our life, we respect it because we know we might have to do it. We support it because it feels “right” but also out of awareness that we too will one day walk the same path.
Yet we need to also recognise that carers experience other emotions, they can become angry, frustrated, they can feel a loss of their own identity and experience a sense of their own lives, their own aspirations and desires being stymied by their role. For some they can feel resentment toward their role and this resentment can become enmeshed in their feelings about the person they care for and can spill over into their attitudes and behaviours toward the person they care for. This seems in direct opposition to the image we have of carers and we can struggle to understand how this can happen. Our image and ideas about carers are in opposition to these negative and challenging behaviours we find it hard to assimilate these opposing feelings.
As a Social Worker I always struggled with this. Reflecting on it now this struggle had two main themes. One was that I found it hard to “go there” to that place of challenging emotions, I feared that if I explored them I could inadvertently destabilise the situation and might contribute to it breaking down, there was an organisational aspect to this as well as I felt that it was important that if the situation did break down the organisation could not be seen to have contributed toward this. Secondly and most significantly was a lack of ability on my behalf to recognise that there should be nothing unusual in carers feeling conflicted, after all we all do. I love my job but there are times I become frustrated and annoyed by it, there are aspects to any situation that bring us to boiling point, finding someone to share these feelings with contributes to your ability to manage them and to feel more skilled.
For carers I have found that exploring all of their feelings is important, on many occasions I have seen carers showing a palpable sense of relief that someone is giving them permission to examine there own emotions in a non judgemental manner. Indeed I have found that carers find this kind of support as meaningful as any other and more meaningful than most. For professionals it is important that we are willing to go beyond the stereotype and populist images of carers and be willing to support carers emotionally as well as practically and socially.