Caring for the Carers

Carers are people who spent time looking after someone who needs beyond the ordinary. They could be caring for their mother, father-in-law, lover, child, Aunty Jean or a next door neighbour – anyone who needs special care because of illness, disability or age-related frailty.

As the role of carer has become more widely recognised, figures collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) have revealed that the majority of carers are women, with the age group between 25 and 64 dominating the field. It’s also during these years in a woman’s life that she is most frequently raising a family, juggling netball practice, soccer games, housekeeping and probably a job. Then the additional load associated with being a carer – perhaps for her father – comes along.

In this situation, the stress can build up like the steam in a pressure cooker – ready to explode into dissention and fights and further wear down already-struggling carers. So what are the most common triggers for such fights, how can they be neutralised and how can carers get the help they need to survive?

Sharing the load

Often siblings in a family do not share the burden equally. This occurs for a variety of reasons – geography, martial status, ability. Maybe, the ‘absent’ sibling doesn’t like the parent involved or vice versa. The resentments involved can translate into a full-scale family brawl if they’re not brought out into the open and discussed.

A variant on this is when your immediate family doesn’t want to help share the burden, either. For example, you want to keep the children in touch with their failing grandmother, but they have a fit when a visit to the nursing home is even mentioned.

Then there’s the testing of family loyalties that occurs when carers try to share too little time between to many people. If you find yourself rushing a casserole over to your father in the evening while your husband is having another defrosted TV dinner, this can clearly turn into a problem over time.

If it seems too difficult to try to defuse these kinds of situation alone, seek out a family counsellor or psychologist who can mediate and facilitate a family conference. Having a neutral point of view in a room full of angst is a godsend – and if you have private insurance you may be able to claim the expense.

Money, money, money

Some primary carers cannot find full-time employment that suits the caring role and may feel jealous of the financial security of the absent sibling.

Careers do have a much lower participation rate in the paid labor force than non-carers: in 2003 the ABS found that 33 per cent of carers were not in the paid labor force compared to 22.4 per cent of non-carers. So there are two problem areas here: envy of other siblings’ greater wealth and financial security and instances where people fall into financial hardship as a result of their caring role.

The federal government has recognised the growth of financial hardship among carers and tackled it in part by providing both a Carer Payment and a Carer Allowance. These are relatively easy to access, although both the carer and the cared-for must be Australian residents, and the Carer Payment is only available to those who notch up 25 hours or less of paid work a week. It currently tops out at $482.10 per fortnight while the Carers Allowance has no work test and is a regular $92.40 per fortnight. There are also other factors to take into account before you start counting on getting the dollars, such as the value of the assets of the person being cared for. If these generate income above a certain amount, the deal’s off.

You can pick up the application forms for these payments from your local Centrelink office or have them posted; read more about them at www.welfarerights.org.au which has excellent fact sheets. Note that both you and the cared-for person’s GP have sections to complete on the application forms.

And since you clearly won’t be ordering a new car on the strength of the payments, one of the issues you may need to address with non-carer siblings – either directly or during family counselling – is some way for them to share the financial load, too.

What will happen when….?

Another constant worry for many carers is, “What will happen when I’m no longer able to do this?”.

Quite apart from the distress it causes carers, this concern highlights the scandalous lack of facilities available for people whose carers become too frail to cope or who die. Often the only option left to them is to take over a hospital bed, however inappropriate. This problem is finally beginning to attract some attention as part of growing public concern about a general shortage of appropriate health care facilities, but it’s far from fixed yet.

What can carers do about it? Get onto the politicians in local, state and federal government, and keep at them. Go for your mayor, your local MPs, the ministers responsible for health and aged care in state, territory and federal governments, the shadow ministers responsible for these portfolios and the minority parties. Their contract details can be easily accessed on the internet.

Look after yourself

Many carers suffer stress-related illnesses including depression, relationship breakdown, and long-term anger. Some of these problems can be sorted out with a visit to the GP who can assess what needs to be done. Perhaps it’s a prescription for you, to help you manage in the short-term while a longer-term solution is found. Perhaps it’s a matter of organising a review by the Aged Care Assessment Team (ACAT), which can unlock more services for you, including respite services.

And maybe if a doctor looks your straight in the eyes and says you need to make some changes, you’ll actually find the determination and strength to make them happen.

You’ll need some support along the way, but start with these simple steps.

-tMaintain a good diet. That doesn’t mean no more chocolate biscuits (what would be the point of going on?), it just means keeping balancing your eating in mind.

-tExercise regularly. If possible, slip out into the fresh air for a brisk walk every day. If that’s not possible, hire or buy a walking machine or exercise bike (look under ‘exercise equipment’ in the Yellow Pages).

Grab those helping hands…

Don’t be afraid to ask for help – you’ll be surprised how much there is around.

Is there someone in your church group who could lend a hand so you could get to the hairdresser, the races or join friends at your favourite coffee shop once a fortnight? What about someone from Rotary, or your gardening or book club? People often offer help we’re either too silly to say yes because we “don’t like to ask favours” or too proud to admit it’s getting hard. Stop doing that: if someone offers, let them help.

It’s also worth talking with your local council to see if the person you are caring for is eligible for subsidised services that can alleviate your burden. Housework, gardening, even the mobile library can make a world of difference to all concerned. See if there are services like hairdressers and podiatrists that will come to the cared-for person at home.

If subsidised services are not available but money allows, buy in some help. In the Yellow Pages you’ll find Domestic Services, Nanny Services (which often also offer Eldercare) – and maybe even a home massage service to ease your and your charge’s aching bones!

Every state has carer organisations that have been set up to lend a hand, an ear or shoulder to cry on. They have lists of respite options, carer support meetings and information on the latest government programs and services that can make a real difference in the everyday life of carers.

… or offer a hand yourself

We’ve acknowledged it takes courage to ask for help, to put up our hands and admit we’re struggling.

If you know someone who’s a carer, don’t wait to be asked. Take the initiative and open the can of worms. Ask them how they’re doing and really listen to their answer. If practical help is needed offer it – but it could be that just talking to someone will make all the difference.

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Carers Australia

(02) 6122 9900

Email: [email protected]

Website: www.carersaustralia.com.au

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