Carers at home and at work

What is it like to be a social care worker by profession, and a carer after working hours? Anabel Unity Sale talked to three professionals to find out

In January, the London Borough of Hackney sought to tap into professionals’ experience of caring and launched a recruitment campaign for therapeutic foster carers.

The campaign was aimed at professionals with relevant experience. Of 20 people who attended its therapeutic fostering open day, the council has shortlisted six with experience of working with children and young people.

Working in social care takes a special kind of individual. Not everyone has the necessary commitment, dedication and skills to work with vulnerable people, who often need intensive support.

The day job can be challenging enough, but doing it from 9am-5pm and then going home and doing it all over again is very tough. For some social care workers, this scenario is very much a reality as they are carers in both their private and professional lives – as three people explain here.

Deborah Cameron, chief executive of substance misuse charity Addaction
When Deborah Cameron qualified as a social worker in 1970 she did not anticipate fostering and adopting two children with complex needs when she was in her fifties. But in 2001 she began fostering Darren and Kylie* and legally adopted the siblings, now 18 and 15, last year.

She looked into becoming a foster carer in 1996 after playing a significant role in raising her niece, who died in 1998. Cameron did not have her own children and knew fostering or adoption was her only option.

During the fostering process Cameron says a senior practitioner queried her commitment by checking that it “wasn’t just a project for me and I was serious”.

Having spent her career in social care, including working in children’s homes, Cameron knew what to expect when she became a foster carer. Initially, it was more difficult for the children to adapt than it was for her as they were not used to living together.

She thinks that her professional background made it easier for her to cope with some of the issues that arose after the children were placed with her.

“I was in a better position than most to deal with the distress that came out,” she says. “Dealing with the children’s pain was easier and wasn’t a complete shock to me because of my professional experience.”

But at times this expertise has been double-edged as Cameron believes she has received less support from the local authority. “It was assumed I could cope.”

When she began fostering, Cameron became a full-time carer for a year before she went back to work. She has found the social care system and NHS unhelpful towards working carers.

“Meetings are at times that suit the organisation and not you,” she says.

As the newly appointed head of substance misuse charity Addaction, Cameron’s schedule is hectic. So does she ever switch off? “I do occasionally. Having different things to do, like my work and looking after the children’s pony, is a way of switching my attention. Maintaining an independent social life has been useful.”

Ingrid Clark, occupational therapist
Caring for her 13-year-old autistic son Wilf comes naturally to Ingrid Clark. She does not regard herself as a carer, saying that what she does is what any mother would do for their child.

Clark works 17-and-a-half hours each week as an occupational therapist for a local authority, 39 weeks a year. The remaining time she devotes to Wilf and her 11-year-old son Charlie as her husband Tom works long hours. Wilf attends a mainstream school where he receives specialist teaching.

She believes working in social care and having a caring role in her private life complement each other. “If I didn’t have a job I’d begin to identify as a mother of a child with special needs but as an occupational therapist I have my own life as well as being Wilf’s mother.”

Drawing on her professional expertise has made being a carer easier. She can negotiate with services and is more assertive than she would be in other circumstances. “I know who to ask and keep plodding away. If I didn’t have my background I would find this harder to do.”

Her training also helps her be more confident about dealing with Wilf; she knows his behaviour can change and does not despair when it doesn’t. “I do feel well-equipped but mothers of special needs kids do find a way to deal with their child. The mothering instinct should never be underestimated, although some professionals do underestimate it.”

Would Clark ever like to have some time out from caring? Her answer is a hesitant yes, as any schedule change for an autistic child can be unsettling. She would like to go to the cinema once in a while but realises that changing Wilf’s routine distresses him.

In the past when she approached her local council’s social services department for respite care she had a negative experience. “The fickleness of the carers meant I could not rely on them so we didn’t get any respite care.”

Ian Cash, independent disability consultant
Ian Cash met his wife, Susan, 28 years ago. A trained nurse, he was a volunteer on a Red Cross holiday that Susan, who has multiple sclerosis, attended. The couple married and for seven years Cash continued to work as a nurse and cared for his wife between his split hospital shifts. “It was very strenuous for me; I raced between work and home to see whether my wife was all right.”

He became a full-time carer for Susan, who uses a wheelchair, after he went on a 12-hour shift and she fell and was stuck on the floor for 13 hours. The care workers who visited Susan while he was working assumed she was out when she did not answer. Cash found Susan when he returned.

He gave up his job and started caring for Susan himself because he felt he had no choice: “It was about family values. As much as I loved my job it was not on a par with my wife and family.”
When Cash tried to return to employment he found prospective employers questioning whether he could combine working with caring. “They’d say to me ‘how do we know you aren’t going to leave this job?’ and not give me a job.”

Unable to find work in social care he completed a degree in biological and environmental sciences and then qualified as a part-time college lecturer. He continued to care for Susan.
Last year, with his son Stuart, he launched an independent consultancy focusing on disability issues in order to have a more flexible working life.

His professional and personal experience of social care has made dealing with service providers more difficult because he knows what sort of care his wife should receive. “If there is a problem with the level of care, I want to argue the point with the service provider or social worker but I also recognise they have financial restrictions and may not be legally entitled to provide such a service.”

* Names have been changed

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