I’m not a carer – or am I?
In Australia today, there are around 2.7 million people looking after a family member with a disability, medical condition, mental illness, or frailty due to age. Most do not see themselves as carers. Instead, they think of themselves as children, parents, partners, relatives or friends who are caring for someone close to them. Those with a more sensitive nature can even feel insulted at the thought of someone trying to label them as a carer.
Why would it matter if people identify as carers or not?
It matters because carers have specific needs. It matters because the staggering number of people who do not see themselves as carers do not realise that as carers they can access a wide range of supports and resources. Taking on the label of carer is a proactive choice. It is about being open to the available resources. It is about being empowered to access and use the supports available to them.
Care in the past
Before the Aged Care sector existed, people relied on their families and communities for all of their care needs. The need to care for others was an unquestioned duty and an obligation. Family households would often have multiple generations living together and caring for each other. Women took on most of this unpaid work. As good women, they were expected to care for children, the elderly, and people who were sick or disabled. This expectation was deeply embedded in their sense of self as good and moral people. They were assumed to provide care from a sense of gratitude, love and respect for their families, neighbours and friends.
In the past, it would never have entered anyone’s mind to label themselves as a carer. Governments didn’t provide social support because it was assumed that there was no need. Women were expected to perform their ‘natural’ role and provide any care that was needed, with occasional contributions from some men and children in exceptional circumstances. There was no need or reason to count or categorise people as carers.
We live in different times
The world today, however, looks very different. We are less likely to live in extended family households. More commonly, we live in nuclear families. In fact, most people have siblings, parents and children who are living and working far from us, including interstate or overseas.
Perhaps more importantly, women can now access education and employment. While this has helped everyone to live a much more independent life, it has also created a so-called ‘care crisis’. While women now participate more often in paid work, we are not seeing an equal shift in the number of men taking on family care responsibilities. Indeed, both men and women struggle to balance paid work and care, because most workplaces don’t make it easy to maintain this balance. Employers expect their workers to be available at all times. This is not a good match with the life and work of a carer, who also needs to give care around the clock. Sometimes, it seems that a person has to decide whether to be a paid worker or to give care to their loved ones – it is difficult to be both at the same time. When we make that difficult decision to reduce our hours of paid work, or give up paid work altogether, we tell ourselves that this is so we can ‘spend more time’ with our loved ones, be a good husband or wife, be a good parent, or be a good son or daughter. We don’t tell ourselves that we are giving up paid work to become a carer.
However, the carer label is actually quite helpful. By identifying as a carer, we can find other people in similar situations as our own – other carers. This allows carers to become more visible and share with other carers the tips and tricks that they use to navigate their lives. It also allows carers to be counted and to become a stronger collective voice. By identifying as a carer in surveys and the Census, it is possible to tell the government and other organisations just how many carers there are in the country. This can help to draw attention to the needs of carers, which might then lead to more resources to support carers.
Unfortunately, many people refuse to take on the label of carer. Many strategies have been used to try and help children, parents, partners, relatives, or friends who care for someone to identify as a carer, but with very little success. Perhaps this is because the carer role is seen as less valuable or valid. After all, our society rewards the things we value with money, and carers are often unpaid or underpaid. Perhaps it is also because we don’t see ourselves as carers. We often prefer to call ourselves by other labels – worker, husband, wife, son, daughter, sibling, friend.
So why don’t carers just accept the label?
Whilst remaining sensitive to the complex dynamics of caring, identifying as a carer is important. It in no way diminishes the relationship between those being cared for and those providing care. But, identifying as a carer is a key factor in opening doors to a plethora of resources. It helps people to access practical, emotional and financial support for themselves and those they care for; the cared. By not accepting the label of carer, we are missing out on opportunities to be better carers, and better friends and family members to those we care for.
Some carers might feel that accepting the label of carer is a symbol that they are giving up, or selling out. They might feel that a carer is different to a family member, that the label diminishes or denies their heart-felt desire to care from a position of love and honour. This can place a carer in a very awkward and uncomfortable position.
What has helped many people alter their thinking is a very effective mind shift. It is possible to accept the external label of carer, while also retaining our internal label of husband, wife, son, daughter and so on. What is needed is for carers to accept that they can have both external and internal identities, and that these can coexist in harmony. It is possible to accept an external identity as a carer, whilst still retaining the most important internal identity, with heartfelt motives intact.
Accepting that we all have both an internal identity and external identities is the key to removing the struggle that many carers have in seeing themselves as either a loving family member or a carer. Once understood, this agility of thought towards identity removes any resistance to the carer label. It could be the mindset carers need to be able to embrace their identity as a carer.
What does it mean to have multiple identities?
We like to think that we have one true identity, one true sense of self. However, this is not entirely true. Sociologist Dr Raelene Wilding, from La Trobe University, explains that our identities are actually made up of two key parts. “The truth is, our identities are made up of two parts. One is that inner sense of who we are, that sense of a core truth about ourselves. The other part is the many external categories and roles that our society uses to define us. Our identity is actually somewhere between these two parts – our identity is both of these, and neither of these, at the same time”.
For Dr Wilding, the carer is one of those external categories or labels that our society provides, to help organise the social world and share out resources. “Nobody is ever just a carer”, she explains. “Taking on the label of carer can be useful as one of our external identity categories or roles. When we take on this role or this label, we are letting governments and other organisations know that we might have specific needs, or we might benefit from particular types of help that are typically useful for carers and available to carers”.
Importantly, this does not diminish from the internal part of our sense of self. In fact, it can sometimes help people to better fulfil or nurture that inner, core identity. As Dr Wilding explains, “While it’s helpful to see the two parts as separate, we can’t lose sight of the fact that they are always interacting with each other and are always shaping each other. So, if we can identify externally as a carer, then we help our societies to count us and value us as carers. This could lead to more resources and support, which can then help us to better nurture our inner sense of self as a person who cares for and cares about a particular person. It helps us to be a better parent, or a better son or daughter, or a better friend to the person we care for”.
Dr Wilding adds that “This external part of our identity is visible in the shared social and cultural labels that we use to navigate our lives. They can have both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, carrying these labels means we don’t have to ask everything about another person every time we meet them. This is because we use these labels to attribute certain expectations to everyone we meet. On the minus side, this can mean that we can bring assumptions to our encounters and our interactions with other people that are not always correct. Once we are aware of this, we can start to embrace the parts of the label that work for us, that we accept as part of our inner sense of self and reject the parts that don’t work for us. We can be clearer with others about the assumptions they can and can’t make about us”.
With acknowledgement of this understanding, we hope you come to know and embrace the many institutions, both public and private, offering help for carers in Australia. You just have to reach out and say, ‘yes, I’m a carer’, then welcome and receive all the resources and support made available to you. A good place to start is by contacting the Carers Association in your state or call Carers Gateway on 1800 422 737. The reality is, if you, the carer, are better resourced and supported, it will always filter through to better support and care for the ones you care for. Everyone wins.
Our magazine is committed to delivering carers with unique insights, practical solutions, and helpful perspectives. We also aim to provide fresh and valuable information designed to make a real difference in your daily lives. Not only are we your new cheerleaders dedicated to help support, encourage and enhance your role, we are also committed to disseminating information about fantastic services that exist for the sole purpose of championing carers.
Written by Paul Koury – Publisher with 12 years caring experience
Dr Raelene Wilding is Associate Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University