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Kate Beaufoy: 'Who cares about the carers? I was a fit fifty when I took on a job of care. I nearly cracked up'

Throughout the country, women in their sixties (an estimated 66% of unpaid caregivers are female) are bathing and dressing and feeding infant grandchildren and ageing parents, writes author Kate Beaufoy.

Kate Beaufoy

IT’S ALL OVER the news now. A decade ago there were murmurs in the media about the ageing demographic and the problems that would arise when the tsunami hit. But nobody was keen to talk about it, as if by remaining silent the problem would go away.

At that time I was caring for an elderly relative and I would avidly read any newspaper articles I happened upon, because it gave me a sense of reassurance, a feeling like that described by CS Lewis: “What? You too? I thought I was the only one!”

Remember when cancer was the bête noire?

Once upon a time it was known as “the C word”, until everyone knew someone who was suffering, and then it suddenly became okay to talk about it. Now we’re talking about dementia. The incidence of diseases like Alzheimers and vascular dementia is on the rise, and it looks as unstoppable as Hokusai’s wave.

What is being spoken about less frequently is the role of the carer. In a particularly invidious form of scapegoatism, politicians have stepped forward to heap guilt on families who can’t take on the responsibility of looking after their elderly.

Again and again we are told that growing old is to be “celebrated”, that we have “challenges” to face.

The dictionary.com definition of “challenge” is “difficulty in a job or undertaking that is stimulating to one engaged in it.”

When did that beautiful word become a euphemism for a backbreaking, heartrending, gut-wrenching dilemma to which there is no facile solution?

Worn down by the challenge

A recent Panorama programme on BBC told the story of a man whose son flew back to his hometown of LA after abandoning his 76-year-old father in the UK, a practice that has become known as “granny-dumping”.

When a habit becomes so prevalent that it’s acquired a nickname, the inference in this case is that thousands upon thousands of families have become so worn down by “challenges” that societal expectations or duties of care no longer affect them. Dereliction is seen as the only way out.

So what about those who are bothered, who really, really are concerned and anxious and stressed to the nth degree about their ageing parents or grandparents, but who simply don’t have the time or the money or the resources to cope? Or those who are hampered by geographical constraints?

Or those who lack the education or the computer skills to deal with the bureaucracy involved in seeking help? Or those who have other dependents who are equally vulnerable?

The costs of care

shutterstock_546225832 Source: Shutterstock/Ocskay Bence

When I was much younger I used to watch scary movies on television, peeping at the screen from between my fingers. Now documentaries about care homes make me do the same thing. I suck in my breath as I look away, then back again, awash with pity and fear.

In a recent investigative report one family was being charged £2,000 a week for 24/7 “care”, which was heartbreakingly substandard.

On Woman’s Hour last week a woman was paying £70 per hour for respite care; many more are scraping by on a paltry allowance.

And in the meantime women in their sixties (an estimated 66% of unpaid caregivers are female) are bathing and dressing and feeding infant grandchildren and ageing parents.

In thousands of homes all over the country, shopping lists are being drawn up that include Huggies Pull-Up nappies (the ones with Disney princesses are €33.60 for 80) and Staydry pants (€64.99 for 80 medium/large).

And here’s the thing. Who is helping these women? Who cares about the carers? I know from experience what a tough job it is: I was a fit fifty when I took on a job of care for just three weeks, and it is no exaggeration to say that I nearly cracked up.

In my novel, The Gingerbread House, the narrator makes the following observation:

I wonder how many forty and fifty and even sixty-something women are caring for their parents? Maybe loads of these women have just finished rearing a family, and have been looking forward to their newfound freedom. Maybe – now that there’s a new miracle drug that they say will postpone the menopause – in the not-too-distant future, fifty-something-year old women will be breastfeeding their babies and spoon-feeding their mothers at the same time?

Vital that we rethink the way we handle intergenerational care

The paradigm has to shift. While researching a recent article for the Sunday Telegraph, I put up a post on Facebook asking friends to contact me via Private Messenger if they had experiences to share.

I was inundated with stories from women at their wits’ end, women who were feeling helpless and depressed and angry and lonely and inadequate, feeling as if they were beneath notice.

These feelings are compounded by the guilt induced every time they are confronted by pictures in the media of comely carers holding the hands of beautiful, snowy-haired elders, smiling into each others’ eyes against a blue-sky background.

And when they turn away from their screens to re-engage with reality, they wonder how and why it all went so wrong for them.

The Gingerbread House by Kate Beaufoy is published by Black & White. See www.katebeaufoy.com.

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