Since I became a social worker in 1986 I have had a keen interest in carers – though back then and in the States we called them informal, unpaid or family caregivers. Here in the UK we use the term carer. I think caregiver and carer are terms that can be confusing as these words are also used for nurses, nurses aids, paid care workers, etc. One of my doctoral students has started using the words caregiver to mean informal/family carers and occupational caregivers for all those whose jobs it is to provide care for another person. I really like that distinction and will use that here (thanks Marianne). Anyhow, as I was saying, I’ve always had a keen interest in caregivers and worked hard to support them while I was in practice and as a doctoral student my research focussed on stress and coping in caregivers. One of the things I discovered in my doctoral research was that knowledge was important for coping, but that knowledge could also increase stress. If as a carer you don’t know that much about dementia, for instance, but learn what the disease progression can look like while the person you are caring for is in the early stages, you can get scared out of your wits! By and large knowledge is a good thing and even though stress might increase at first, I find having access to good information when it is needed is a key component of the support carers need.
Later in my career I was involved in research about how to identify caregivers early. The idea was that we should identify caregivers as early as possible to make sure that they received the supports needed early in the caring trajectory. It was shocking to hear how often caregivers were not identified as a such. Other times they could be ignored or seen as a hinderance to the professionals’ roles. So we wanted to see if we could help professionals recognise earlier when someone was in a caregiving role and offer support.
Interestingly one of the things we began to hear from this early identification work is that many caregivers reacted negatively to the label of carer or caregiver. They objected because they did not see themselves as caregivers – they were simply a wife, husband, partner, parent, sibling, daughter or son doing what any spouse, parent, child would do. And yet, many of these people who initially objected to being called a carer would at some point begin to identify as such. It’s this transition from being ‘just’ a spouse (or whatever relationship descriptor that is appropriate) to being a caregiver. On a personal level, that is what the rest of this blog post will be about. I’ve recently realised that no longer am I just a husband, but I am also a caregiver, and I’m not exactly sure when that happened.
Certainly as a spouse I have taken on a wide range of caring behaviours and I have altered my life choices in the interest of the relationship. I’ve also nurtured, supported and cared for my husband when he was ill or injured. He has done likewise. This ebb and flow of support is part of any mutually supportive and healthy relationship. Even during periods of intense caring behaviours, it all felt part of ‘normal’ caring…. the kind of thing you do in a relationship.
There was an event some years back and a deterioration in mental well being that necessitated me taking on significantly more responsibility in our relationship, but even then I didn’t feel like a caregiver. Again, it was just what you did as a spouse in a committed loving relationship.
There was that first chronic illness that began to impact on functioning and a reduction in his working. That made me the primary bread winner and gave me another thing to worry about, but still I didn’t think of myself as a caregiver, though looking back I was increasing my caring.
Then there was the 2nd chronic illness that came with pain and fatigue…but being a caregiver never crossed my mind…despite increasing worry and providing extra support.
There was the realisation that my husband was ageing and no longer middle-aged and signs of declining mobility and functioning were beginning to emerge more. I was doing more of the lifting, jar opening, heavy chores…but still I wasn’t a caregiver.
Then I noticed I was getting irritated, grumpy and short over little things like why few chores were done while I was at work, or mistakes were made, or I was having to clean up dribbles off the toilet seat everyday, or I had to repeat myself for the 12th time because he still hadn’t put in his hearing aids yet, or that I was making more and more choices to accommodate his increasing needs. I found myself getting a bit more angry/irritated about such things.
And then I thought….damn I recognise all of this. I am a caregiver. When did this happen? I have no idea when that happened, but I woke up one morning and it dawned on me. I knew it did not happen over night, but I couldn’t put a finger on when it happened. Somewhere along the line I became more than just a loving, caring and supportive spouse – I became a spouse who was a caregiver. That realisation made such a difference to me as so much of the resentment, irritation, blame I had been feeling for a while just kind of drained away. Suddenly it all made sense.
And then I had to laugh at myself a wee bit. As I wrote earlier, since 1986 I’ve either been supporting caregivers in practice, researching caregiver’s issues, or teaching about caregivers and how to involve them in health and social care…..but despite being an expert in the field – I didn’t recognise what was happening to me and my relationship.
Having knowledge really does help. Now that I know I am a caregiver, things are much easier for me emotionally. Sure I still get frustrated, but I know that I am consciously choosing to do this. I no longer am accidently falling into being a caregiver. That strangely gives me a sense of control. You would think after all that research I would have figured it out for myself quite a while ago!