The outbreak of the coronavirus has been particularly difficult for those with caring responsibilities. The pandemic has meant more people than ever are navigating work with caring for a vulnerable friend or family member. Juggling caring with work is something I experienced before the pandemic.
I began caring for my Nan in 2008, while studying toward my law degree. I lived with her as her main carer for over 11 years and juggled caring with the legal profession. I assisted with almost all aspects of my Nan’s daily needs and activities like bathing, dressing, lifting and moving, administering medications, cooking and cleaning. My duties started in the morning, before going in to the office, recommencing after work finished and continuing throughout the night. My Nan sadly passed away in January this year. After many years of studying and working alongside caring, I finally qualified as a solicitor in April, but unfortunately my Nan wasn’t here to see it.
Although my care role had ended, like many care givers, I have continued to be involved as an advocate for carers and a volunteer for Carers UK. My Nan’s passing left a big void and so when lockdown began in March, I used the opportunity to volunteer my assistance to my Nan’s elderly neighbours and friends, who were classed as high risk.
My Nan had lived in a small estate of bungalows, specially adapted for the elderly and disabled. I put notes through the doors of neighbours as a way of reaching out. I am able to assist a few elderly neighbours by doing their shopping, collecting prescriptions, dropping off meals, popping in the newspaper and just generally lending a hand. I call them regularly and we have door step and over the fence chats, to try and help ease the loneliness during isolation.
Other neighbours who are in a position to help also assist, so there is a real sense of community. They also check up on me with regular text messages, just as much as I check up on them. The Thursday night applauses for the NHS and key workers bring many of us into our gardens or participate from the windows and it is quite a heart-warming moment, knowing that we are all here for each other.
However, it is not just the elderly that are high risk and in need of care. As a result of the pandemic, I have also found myself providing support to a close friend whose mental health has been significantly impacted since lockdown has begun. Although many of us have seen the headlines and statistics, it is quite scary to actually witness the almost sudden decline of those closest to you. Providing emotional support is also a form of care giving.
It is easy to overlook the significance of this form of caring, because it is often given in private, quiet moments and can be the opposite to the physical, manual assistance that is stereotypically associated with a caring role. However, communicating and listening is crucial when caring for someone with mental illness and this form of care and support is so important.
Caring can be a hugely rewarding experience but care givers own wellbeing is also important and often overlooked. People who may not usually identify themselves as having caring responsibilities may now find themselves in the position of a care giver as a result of the pandemic, while also working full time and juggling other commitments.
Carrying out many roles and responsibilities can be extremely challenging. Had I still been a live-in carer, I may not have been able to leave the house as the risk of bringing home the virus to someone so vulnerable would have been too great. Working from home has allowed more flexibility, but there is still a risk of care giver burnout. Care givers themselves may also need someone to assist them and I would encourage people to give a helping hand, to those that give a helping hand.
Last year, I helped set up a family and carers group at Osborne Clarke, so others in caring situations could come together and provide support for one another. Before working at Osborne Clarke, I previously found it difficult balancing a career with my caring role. Carer’s rights are not always recognised by employers, even though one in nine of an employer’s workforce are carers. One in five carers leave or turn down a job because of caring responsibilities.
There is a perception that, given the level of responsibility and dedication required, caring is a distraction which cannot be afforded when pursuing a career. However, this stigma is now up for scrutiny, given that so many of the public have taken on the dual role of caring during the pandemic.
Now that caring roles have been highlighted and that the public and employers have an insight as to what is required of care givers, my hope is that this understanding will continue even after the pandemic passes.
Katie Howell is a lawyer in Osborne Clarke’s Bristol office.