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Author's Name: Lynn Fairbrass
Date: Mon 23 Nov 2020

The Challenges of Caring

No one anticipates becoming a carer. Changes to the health of your loved ones can occur at any moment and can drastically alter the course of your life. This was the case for Lyn, who first became a carer after her husband suffered from a stroke many years ago.  Since 2013, she has also been caring for her adult daughter, who developed a mental health condition whilst studying at university. Suddenly confronted with financial instability, emotional exhaustion and little to no respite from unpaid work, Lyn’s life was completely upturned. 

The challenges of being a carer are manifold, and caring work is rarely recognised by society to the extent that it deserves. “In my own case, I calculate that having to give up work costs me about 1.5 million dollars in lost salary and super,” Lyn says, referring to the six-digit salary job that she had to sacrifice in order to care for her loved ones. Not only do carers, most of whom are females, suffer from financial losses, but they are also often burdened with continued responsibility and stress. “It’s very rewarding to be able to help people get back on their feet, but it’s ongoing. You’re on duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” Lyn says. 

Particularly in her daughters’ case, Lyn often finds herself conflicted between the role of a carer and the role of a mother. A valuable piece of advice that Lyn learned from an educational course for carers is the importance of maintaining a level of professional detachment, as well as looking out for yourself. “You’ve got to think of yourself as a lighthouse,” Lyn says. “A lighthouse stands on the shore, and the lighthouse shows the light so that the ships don’t get shipwrecked and come crashing to shore. But the lighthouse can’t walk into the ocean to save the people on the ship. Because as soon as that happens, the lighthouse will also sink.” 

Another difficulty faced by carers is the lack of public understanding about the caring role.  Being a carer means taking on the unpaid role of continuously looking after someone who is unwell or has some form of disability, which is extremely different to caring for a family member in the general sense. “I think people need to understand that caring for somebody that has a physical disability or a mental health problem actually requires people to really step up to the mark and out of their own egos,” Lyn says. “It can be very humbling at times.” She also notes how caring has afforded her the ability to open up her mind to alternate perspectives. “You just learn to listen a lot as a carer,” she says. “You need to suspend judgement - you don’t know what other people's circumstances are.” 

Recognising that we aren’t fully aware of the challenges that others face in their lives is certainly an important message, particularly when considering carers themselves. While carers make valuable contributions to the welfare of society on many levels, their own well being is often not prioritised. This is precisely the ideology behind MWF’s Winds of Care program, which takes carers out for a stress-free sail in the harbour and gives them the opportunity to relax and socialise with each other. “The biggest challenge for carers is being able to switch off and care for yourself, and that was why going on that sailing boat for a couple of hours was beautiful,” says Lyn. More generally, she also emphasises the importance of exercise, self-care and a supportive network of friends and families for carers. 

Key Points People Need to Understand About Caring: 

  • Being a carer for someone that has a disability or a mental health problem is very different from caring for a regular family.
  • Caring requires extreme patience, selflessness and sacrifice. 
  • Most caring work is done by women. 
  • Many carers have little to no respite and often suffer from sleep-deprivation. 
  • Self-care for carers is absolutely key!

Lyn is particularly passionate about advocacy for carers and the need for female carers to speak up. Active in the political sphere, she often speaks with local politicians on how the situation can be improved. She has also worked closely with numerous organisations such as Carers NSW and Women’s Network and taken various educational courses related to caring. 

One thing Lyn has been made aware of in her years of experience is the myriad of problems populating the public health and mental illness space. “There’s supposedly so much money going into mental health, but it’s certainly not evident on the front line in public hospitals,” Lyn notes. She has found that the nurses are often spread very thinly and sometimes they don’t have as much training as they could have. What she also points out is that patients in hospitals can easily become stuck in a vicious cycle of socio-economic struggle, as well as relying on medical drugs with severe side effects. “Most of the time [...] they haven’t got a job, sometimes their mental health means that they’re not every rational in the decisions and choices they make, and if they haven’t got a roof over their head, that just exacerbates everything,” she says.

As we can see from Lyn’s insights, the life of a carer is far from easy. Caring is essential to improving the lives of those with disabilities or mental health conditions, hence why we cannot neglect the importance of looking after our society’s carers and listening to the perspectives they have to offer. There are many ways you can support these quiet achievers either by volunteering your time through various support agencies, lobbying the government for change or simply seeing them and respecting their extremely important role. By supporting these community members and raising awareness about the various issues that exist in the health and disability sectors, we can help to make small waves of positive change in society.

If you or someone you know is a carer and are looking for support, see these events for carers:

Written by Lynn Fairbrass and Eleanor Edstrom

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