A ‘carer’ is defined as anyone who spends time and energy looking after another person who needs extra attention because of their age or physical or other disability. This could be a friend or neighbour but it is most likely to be a close relative. The word ‘carer’ in this context refers to an ‘informal’ or ‘non-professional’ person, rather than a trained worker. Being a carer may present you with strong, emotional feelings and it may take a while to get used to the effect. Taking on a caring role is not something you set out to do, like a professional job with ample training – at least, not the sort of caring that you are doing now for someone you love. Most people start caring for someone with cancer in one of three ways: swiftly, following the dramatic diagnosis of an acute form of cancer; more gradually, because they have prepared themselves knowing their relative may suffer a relapse of an existing illness; and, lastly, the caring situation may develop over many years (even with cancer) as the health of a relative deteriorates. Whatever your experience has been, the way you became a carer will be special to you.
What does it mean to be a carer?
In general terms, caring varies from a full-time activity if someone is seriously ill to as little as keeping a regular eye on a relative’s daily affairs. The aim of most carers is to help the less able person remain in their own home, leading as stress- free and independent a life for as long as is possible. Wherever your position on the spectrum of care, it’s likely that you are undertaking many of the fohowing tasks:
– providing a safe and comfortable home;
– doing practical jobs such as shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry and gardening;
– giving personal care and doing basic nursing procedures;
– offering love, emotional support and company;
– providing help and advice on running personal affairs;
– reducing isolation and bringing a bit of the ‘outside world’ into the daily life of someone who may be terminally ill.
Recognising yourself as a carer
Now that your relative has cancer it is vital that you are aware of the support and help that is available and also that you also have rights as a carer that go alongside the responsibilities.
There are an estimated 5.7 million carers in the UK (one in eight people), nearly two million of whom provide substantial amounts of care. At times being a carer creates tremendous anxiety and distress; you may be undertaking tasks that feel difficult and unfamiliar, you are largely unpaid and untrained, and are often on duty for 24 hours each day, seven days a week. You will need to pace yourself, use a range of skills and experience, take on an enduring commitment, build up strong physical and mental systems, control your emotions and maintain a good sense of humour. Quite a lot to expect from one person! This responsibility will tax your patience and you won’t always get it right – life is never completely straightforward and you may feel that it has already dealt you a nasty blow – but there are many sources of support you can draw upon to help you cope with very difficult situations and find ways of managing the stress.