Working as a Carer: Erica’s Story

Working as a Carer: Erica’s Story

Having care responsibilities for someone else can often present its own unique obstacles and struggles. While Patchwork Hub already has an article looking at resources which may be useful for carers, from finding practical help to financial support, we thought we’d dive deeper into the specific challenge of juggling caring for someone while simultaneously working or studying. Erica has also kindly shared her experience with us – she is an Oxford university student, and her family have cared for her sister her whole life.

One of the largest misconceptions regarding care-work is that those who have such responsibilities only do so because they choose to, Erica tells us. “If people didn’t do care work, the NHS wouldn’t be able to do the work they do. A lot of it is unpaid care work from family and friends – at the end of the day, it is basically a full-time job and they really don’t get enough support.”

As a result, it can sometimes appear that carers’ entire lives consist only of their caring responsibilities. This could not be further from the truth. Caring for someone is a responsibility but it is by no means an entire identity, in the same way that being a banker is not the only defining factor for someone who works in that sector. Caring for someone is not the sole item of significance for someone who has such responsibilities. The achievements of students like Erica who care are not due to their ‘exceptional circumstances’, but due to their own academic merit: “I wanted to know that I had achieved my offer due to my own hard work!” Carers can also be artists, writers, athletes, teachers – the list goes on and on. Their lives are not restricted solely to caring for someone.

Not only is this myth widely believed by much of the general public, but it can unfortunately also be believed by many carers themselves. It can sometimes be easy to forget that you deserve to do things for yourself too, not just the person you are caring for. As Erica notes, “You’re entitled to have a break. If you go to university like me, you’re still allowed to be young and have fun.” Erica has volunteered at several charities over the years, including those specifically oriented towards providing support for carers. These organisations “care for you, not just the people you’re caring for,” allowing people to open up to workers about how they are feeling or to take part in activities like arts and crafts, and to express themselves in a fun and creative way.

If you are responsible for the care of someone and are simultaneously trying to balance working or studying, getting chances to enjoy yourself like this can be especially difficult. It can feel like there isn’t enough time in the day to fit everything in, and looking after yourself perhaps finds itself slipping down the list of priorities. However, with the right support systems in place and with a little trial and error, this can be minimised. Looking after yourself or having fun and enjoying individual hobbies should not be neglected – self-care is just as important.

“You’re entitled to have a break. If you go to university like me, you’re still allowed to be young and have fun.”

Alongside organisations and charities dedicated to carers’ needs, finding respite care could be extremely useful in providing much-needed flexibility and time. This covers a broad expanse of possibilities but essentially means that the person you care for is looked after by someone else. It can range from hiring carers for a regular visit lasting a number of hours or live-in carers providing 24-hour supervision, to sending them to a local day-care or residential college. It is also always worth remembering the value of friends and family when needing to take a small break.

“I wanted to know that I had achieved my offer due to my own hard work!”

While services offered by local councils can be extremely beneficial, it may take some searching to find the best-fit solution for your specific needs. Erica’s family decided to choose a residential college for her sister, in part because they weren’t satisfied with local alternatives. This, unfortunately, most likely resonates with many families across the country, those who struggle finding services that can provide the exact care and support they want. “We chose a residential college because it was what made most sense for us; for others, the answer might be different. A lot of the local alternatives lacked an educational or skills based approach in order to cut their costs, whereas her college allowed her to instead develop life skills and a sense of independence. It seemed like the perfect transition step for the future.” Support systems to help lift the weight for working carers are out there – it may simply be a matter of searching once more before giving up, or of contacting others for advice and guidance.

Options such as residential colleges can be hugely valuable in relieving some of the weight added by needing to work or study at the same time. Similarly, enlisting the help of friends and family in looking after the person you are caring for can also be practical short-term solutions. The sudden extra time could mean being able to fit in additional work hours or taking the opportunity to enjoy a break.

After enrolling at a residential college, Erica’s family were able to travel more, getting the chance to go abroad more often. “It was hard to take holidays without my sister before college because she was very attached to us. But the independence she gained meant that, for example, my parents could take short trips to Barcelona and Lake Garda and really enjoy themselves!”

Caring for someone and working at the same time, even with breaks, can still be incredibly straining. The demands that caring responsibilities bring may often clash directly with the need to work. In Erica’s experience, while at school, it often made studying at home difficult. “Leading up to exams, it became really hard to revise and find some support for myself. I would often stay at college quite late to work or go work at my friend’s house.”

With many caring responsibilities being necessary and as such impossible to ignore, having a job while also caring for someone requires actively working around the person and their situation. It can be useful to create a structured pattern to every day, both for the carer and the person being cared for. This way, it becomes easier to strike the correct balance between personal time, care, and work, avoiding any element losing or gaining too much priority.

“[COVID-19] has made things ten times harder. Our set routine has been obliterated.”

The added difficulty of COVID-19 has been, understandably, almost beyond belief for many working carers. “It’s made things ten times harder. Our set routine has been obliterated,” Erica confides. After working so hard to find a structured lifestyle that was suitable, the pandemic has completely torn these meticulously planned routines up for many carers. Erica’s sister, for example, could no longer stay at her residential college and needed to be shielded due to her underlying health condition, meaning that her family had to readjust to looking after her full-time again. After hiring a PA 3 days a week and ensuring her sister kept in contact with college friends to maintain some sense of normality, in turn making her behaviour less challenging, the sudden change became easier to cope with. These unprecedented times are undoubtedly difficult but knowing that others are going through similar experiences may provide some comfort and reassuring solidarity.

While working and caring for someone else at the same time often brings plenty of challenges, it is important to remember that there are a plethora of resources and people out there eager to provide assistance. Even in the midst of what feels like a completely unpredictable year, an equilibrium can be found.

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