Mel Wright, independent trainer, facilitator and member of voluntary organisation Carers Lewisham, on how the organisation is encouraging male carers to come forward for support.
Most carers are women but increasingly male carers, albeit reluctantly, are coming forward for advice and support.
Carers Lewisham provides a range of services, but Bruce Letchford, carers’ respite care manager, recognised a gap in the market and set up a male carers group. They began meeting at Lewisham carers centre 18 months ago.
It began with a few male carers, encouraged by Letchford, to come together once a month for coffee and to share their caring experiences. Over the months it snowballed to 20 members. Although Letchford co-ordinates and helps facilitate the meetings, the agenda is set by the men themselves. They are now so passionate about how the service has helped them to cope better with the demands of being a male carer that they want to show how it can help others.
“Meeting others in a similar situation, it makes you feel that you are still normal,” says Brian, one of the original members who cares for his wife. Some of the others are single parents caring for adults or children with disabilities.
Coming to the group also helps to break down their sense of isolation.
Dave, a long-term carer looking after a disabled child, says: “In the caring role we have no choice. It can make you resentful, jealous and bitter.”
He had struggled on his own before seeking support from Carers Lewisham.
“You can’t be spontaneous anymore because caring is a set procedure and routine. You wind up thinking – why me, my life’s wasting away. This isn’t fair – you’ve just got to let it out,” he adds.
Another carer Jacob agrees: “You run out of options and you get desperate – feeling trapped, isolated, a social outcast.”
Traditionally men have not been easy to attract to these sorts of groups. So why has it worked so well? The process and ethos of the group are important and the men said how their agreed ground rules, such as confidentiality so that nothing goes outside the room, help to give them structure and a sense of belonging when they all meet.
The ground rules are: confidentiality; allowing people to speak, especially new people; time boundaries for the beginning and end of the meetings; and everybody to introduce themselves when a new member joins the group.
Increasingly the carers are taking on running things for themselves – shaping the discussion and activities to help address their needs. At the start of the meeting they chat informally which is as important as the main topics, because they share their stress as well as the triumphs of the caring role.
In the group, there is also respect for those who don’t want to talk but are just happy to be there.
The group have discussed a number of topics including advice on cooking, looking after your health, benefits, and issues over providing personal care to a wife or mother.
A visiting district nurse discovered some men had very high blood pressure that had been previously overlooked by health services.
Information sharing between members helps to build people’s self-esteem and confidence which also acts as a link to other carers’ services. For example, counselling was seen by some men as something they wouldn’t do but with encouragement from others who have tried it, it is now more widely accepted.
Respite care, sitting services, aromatherapy, reflexology, first aid, computer classes, learning for living, digital photography and art classes have all helped to raise the quality of male carers’ lives.
The first point of support contact for male carers was said to be vital. “A bloke wants to talk to a bloke,” says Ronnie. In the group the men have helped each other to apply for and accept help. The paradox is ever present of being under a great deal of stress but not wanting to relinquish caring responsibilities, partly because of being apprehensive about the insufficient or different quality of care that might be provided.
The men’s carers group is helping to break down barriers for some male carers who have been plunged into caring and feel lost and overwhelmed. By talking to each other and feeling more confident about getting help and support, perhaps the male psyche of coping alone and holding it all in are being gently eased out.
There is a sense of liberation in the group with men being able to manage their caring situations, perhaps in the knowledge of knowing that they’ve also got each other to talk to. It’s been a big step.
Email Carers Lewisham or call 020 8699 8686.