Isolation, frustration, disconnection…but happiness too. Welcome to the complicated life of a carer.

In Queensland there are 474,000 people who provide unpaid care to a family member or friend with a disability, a mental health problem, terminal illness, chronic medical condition, or age-related frailty.

That’s a big (unpaid) workforce!

Many of us will be touched by caring at some point in our lives; 1 in 11 in fact.

Carers come from all walks of life, age, background, culture and geography. Some are in their 80’s and 90’s and many haven’t even reached their teens.

Most carers are a parent, a spouse, partner or a child, but many are also other relatives, friends and some even relative strangers.

Too often carers are perceived as an economic burden – particularly full-time carers whose responsibilities bar them from working. The reality is if they put their needs first and delegated their responsibilities to the paid care sector, the Australian taxpayer would stump up an additional $40B per annum.

That’s up there with defence spending.

Carers are slow to complain and often their contribution goes unnoticed. Yet they are the first responders who struggle to help themselves.

Most of us have a deep need to care and be cared for. We share that connection and intuition. Yet many carers, in their unnoticed commitment, lose touch with a sense of belonging and being part of something greater.

A community is a collection of individuals. Each plays a part in building a caring community. Without unpaid carers, we are not a real community. And if do not acknowledge, support and thank carers, we are all lessened.

Caring for someone, often comes at great personal cost including social isolation, frustration, economic disempowerment and despair.

This year in particular, the day-to-day challenges carers regularly face have been magnified.

For what times we are living in!

12 months ago, “zooming” was something you did hurrying to pick up the kids from school.

If, in October 2019 we read a headline from a major Australian newspaper reading “Health Minister relaxes rules around singing”, we would have checked to see if it was dated 1 April!

If we had walked into our local Woolworths a year ago and there was not a single pack of toilet paper on the shelves, we would have assumed the delivery truck had been in an accident!

In 2019, social isolation was a terrible curse to be avoided at all costs.

Yet here we are.

Given our concern about how carers were coping in such extraordinarily challenging times, Carers Queensland conducted a “well-being survey” to find out.

It revealed;

* 38% reported a in reduction in service delivery from the paid sector.

* 39% identified a decline in individual mental health.

* 24% were home schooling and 52% of those were home schooling children with additional supports needs.

* 10% of carers experienced a job loss or reduction in hours

Most importantly, whilst carers are traditionally well and truly accustomed to social isolation, opportunities for time off to meet friends – breakouts if you like – are absolutely critical. And for many months these opportunities disappeared. Meeting with friends and family, were prohibited for understandable reasons. But this loss impacted disproportionally on carers.

Research consistently records that the health and wellbeing of a carer worsens over time, and this is especially true when the carer believes they lack recognition within their community. 

Yet inspirationally, they record remarkably high levels of personal happiness.

There is a Chinese saying which is: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, care for somebody.”

Caring is undoubtedly personally rewarding and can bring life affirming experiences, but we must remain ever vigilant to safeguard against  complacently accepting that a high personal cost should be borne by a few on behalf of so many.

So how do we support carers to ensure they don’t sacrifice personal health and well-being on behalf of a shared responsibility?

First, the demand on caring families is increasing exponentially as the number of older people grows, and the their needs become more complex.

There is also a declining availability (relative to demand) of publicly provided and privately managed support.

Thirdly, many lifelong carers have been out of the workforce for so long that re-entering it when the opportunity arises, is terrifying.

Carers Queensland is working to address these.

It is in our DNA.

Winston Churchill once said “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”

And so, we learn early that it is better to give than receive.

This aphorism is drummed into us as part of the transfer of foundational wisdom described by Tom Wolfe as what we learn on our grandmother’s knee. 

Research reveals evidence that caring is a powerful pathway to personal growth and lasting happiness.

But we should never forget that caring doesn’t always feel great. The opposite is often true: Giving can make us feel depleted, unappreciated and taken advantage of.

This was most encapsulated for me in a carer I met several years ago.

She was a full-time carer for an elderly mother and grandmother. Despite the paid home care they received she remarked; “when the world walks out, I walk in.”

To carers we say simply “thank you”.

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