Jayne Dowle: About time others appreciated the challenges that Britain’s carers face

WAS it before I ran into the supermarket to pick up four cartons of milk? Or when I left the chemist clutching the tablets for my dad? I’m not sure but a truth struck me at some point during that day. I’d bumped into two friends and a distant cousin. And I’d had a variation on the same conversation with all three of them. Every single one of us was on an errand for our parents.

Broadcaster Andrew Marr
Broadcaster Andrew Marr

Here was Debbie collecting a repeat prescription for her mother-in-law. There was Sarah dividing up her trolley into shopping for herself and her four children, and her mother’s “bits”. And as I pulled out of the supermarket car-park, I saw Steve parking up with his elderly father in the passenger seat beside him. Steve’s father has dementia. He was once a keen sportsman, fit and strong, the heart-throb of the village. These days though, all Steve’s dad wants to do is whatever Steve is doing. He follows him everywhere, like a toddler.

That afternoon was an epiphany. I’ve known these three people all my life. We’ve grown up together; through schools and shared happy childhood memories, through awkward teenage years, through finding our first jobs and getting married and bringing up children. I thought we really had grown up. I was wrong.

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We’ve only just begun to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. It is not until now, when the realisation hits that it is us looking after our mothers and fathers rather than the other way around, that the truth dawns. We’re the carers now, foot-soldiers in the six million-strong army believed to be looking after a dependent relative in the UK.

Perhaps you’re one too, without even realising it. Caring creeps up on us. Maybe it started when your mum or dad was ill with flu and you picked up their shopping along with your own. Even though they recover, you’re still worried. So you ring them every morning before you leave for work, just to make sure they’re OK. Call in on your way home to pick up their washing. You might not realise it’s happening, but before you know it, you are doing it. Caring for our parents, as they once cared for us.

For many of us, it’s just what we do. It becomes yet another thing to fit into our already-busy lives juggling work, children and putting food on the table. The question is though, are we up to the challenge that being a carer brings? On the evidence I see before me every day, I am not sure. When I see my friends running here and there, I can’t miss the bags under their eyes. The strain on their faces. The constant checking of watches, the phone in their hand in case an urgent call comes through. We shouldn’t assume we should cope. And we shouldn’t assume that those friends and relatives we see running about can cope too.

Sharing our concerns helps. That’s why it is time it stopped being taboo to talk about it. According to the charity Carers UK, it is estimated that family carers save the state some £119bn a year. Yet what support do we get? What credit are we given for our contribution? Proper financial recognition would be nice, but I’m not just talking in monetary terms. I’m talking about a serious understanding of what we do, from the government, from employers and from society as a whole.

We end up caring for our parents when ill-health or infirmity means they can no longer fully look after themselves. Yet looking after other people can have a seriously detrimental effect on our own health. It demands extreme levels of patience, tolerance, compassion and stamina. Not everyone is equipped to deal with it, yet if we find ourselves in that situation, we are expected to.

There is even a recognised medical condition – ‘Elderly Parent Responsibility Stress Syndrome’ (EPRSS). For every person who cares, it will be different. However, it is characterised eventually by one symptom: exhaustion, be it emotional, mental or physical.

The condition might be officially recognised, but the day-to-day reality is not. The broadcaster Andrew Marr, who suffered a stroke earlier this year, has called for flexible working rights for carers to become the norm. On the face of it, he’s an unlikely champion. Educated, intellectual, and in the public eye, he is as far from the “stereotype” of a weary-eyed campaigner for caring as it is possible to be. We need more individuals like him to speak up though. We need to quash the stereotypes. We need to open up the debate and accept that it is going on in all kinds of families, regardless of class, background or location. For too long, “caring” has been an uncomfortable concept with those who make the decisions which could make our lives easier to live. This must change. And meanwhile, people like me and Debbie and Sarah and Steve soldier on. We have no choice but to be up to the challenge. Our parents appreciate what we do. It’s about time that others appreciated the challenge we face too.