Carers Week celebrates the contribution of six million carers to the UK. Half of those juggle work and caring. Vern Pitt spoke to three carers at different points in their social work career to find out how caring has affected them
Amanda Lewis, student social worker
How did you become a carer?
After my son Morgan’s premature birth, nearly five years ago, we discovered that he had Down’s syndrome. In the first few weeks of life, he had pyloric stenosis (which causes severe vomiting), an under-active thyroid and a moderate to severe hearing loss. I didn’t realise that I was a carer for a while. I suppose I realised once I had made my first DLA application.
Why did you become a social worker?
A careers adviser suggested social work to me at the age of 19. At that time I only had a narrow view of their work. However, since being in the social care system I can appreciate the variety of roles a social worker can have and the impact on an individual or family of their work. I believe I have the personal qualities to relate well to people and make a positive difference to their lives.
What would help you to balance care and social work?
Having good and reliable child care in place after school and for holiday time, flexible working conditions to attend appointments and to have time off when Morgan is ill.
What social work skills do you think you have developed as a carer?
I can empathise with the emotional journey people undertake when a new situation arises, and the impact on the individual and the immediate and wider family.
After training as a parent/carer representative, I feel I have gained confidence to be able to work in a multidisciplinary team and advocate on behalf those in need.
Are carers given enough credit?
No. I’m sure many struggle on because they have no choice; their voice cannot be heard or someone doesn’t pick up on their cries for help. Many care 24/7 and that’s no life. In most cases I would surmise that the main carer doesn’t receive enough support.
What reforms of government policy would be most beneficial to carers?
Carer’s allowance needs to have a sliding scale of payments so if you earn above your maximum earnings (£100 a week), then you should have an appropriate reduction to your benefit rather than lose it altogether. This would allow people to work additional hours, take on ad hoc jobs to gain experience that could lead to more permanent employment or help them increase their hours in order to come off the benefit.
Julie McNulty*, former social work team manager
Julie has quit the social work profession, partly due to the pressures of caring for her daughter Rachel*, who is studying for her A-levels. Because Rachel feels guilty about this, she wishes to remain anonymous.
How did you become a carer?
When my daughter became ill about three years ago. No one knew what was wrong and we spent a number of months going to different specialists, doctors and hospitals. All the symptoms added up to chronic fatigue. After six months that becomes ME.
How did you balance caring with your job?
It was not good for me or my service users going to all those appointments. Most of the time I could plan when I wouldn’t be at the office. But after a year the illness took a different turn and there were days when she wouldn’t be able to get out of bed and I would have to phone in to work and say, “I can’t come”.
More often were the times that I had to get my neighbours to check on her and take her food. I could go to work but my mind was always wondering whether she was okay.
As a manager you can’t not give the job 100% because you are making decisions about other people’s lives. I don’t think my decision-making was compromised but it took me longer to make them.
Did your social work skills help you as a carer?
Definitely, as a result of knowing the system and having colleagues who were supportive. You get to a stage sometimes where you are so overloaded with problems you can’t see the solution because it’s just too personal. In that situation they would say, “you need to go and see this person about occupational health or disability living allowance or carer’s allowance”.
I knew all about it but I never thought it would apply to me. It’s a strange feeling because you are trying so hard to be a mum as opposed to a social worker.
How did being a carer change your social work practice?
It made me very child-focused. When you are working with children and families you can get entrenched in the families’ issues rather than the children’s.
Is there anything else that would have helped you stay in the profession?
I was given a lot of help and my employer did as much as they could. There ought to be more awareness of the need for paid leave to care. We are actually saving the government money by caring for elderly relatives and children. I fought to prevent Rachel ever spending a night in hospital; I always bought her home. That saved the government money. Therefore the government should give more back.
*Not their real names
Janice Shand, older people’s social worker
How did you become a carer?
My 12-year-old son, Alex, was diagnosed with Asperger’s and pathological demand avoidance syndrome about three years ago. That’s where they avoid the ordinary demands of life. For example, I’ll ask him to put his shoes on and he won’t do it.
What help does your employer give you to balance your roles?
They are very good. I get calls from school sometimes to ask me to come and get him because he’s in a bit of a state. It’s never a problem. They’re very flexible with me.
Have you struggled to get help?
It was a struggle to get him a short tea-time break at first because they told me he didn’t score highly enough. I said to them: “What’s he got to do, murder somebody? It’s only 12 hours a week.” Eventually we got him in but then they changed that to youth clubs and now he won’t go, he’s not interested.
I’ve never been offered a carer’s assessment, but what would they give me? Because its been horrendous getting anything for Alex, I think I’d rather just do it myself. Then I know it’s done properly.
Do your social work skills help you as a carer?
I was a medical secretary before and I had a rosy view of the medical services. It was only when I trained as a social worker that I realised the discrimination that came from the NHS and I realised I had to challenge these doctors to get what I needed for my son.
How has being a carer changed your social work practice?
I like to think I’m empathetic and understanding and, if a carer needs me to be on the end of the line, I will be.
The good thing about working is it’s time away from my own life as a carer. It keeps you grounded coming to work. I think I would go mad staying at home. It can be stressful in my job, such as when I have older clients with dementia. But when it’s someone else’s problem it’s easier to deal with.
What changes need to take place at a governmental level?
Carers deserve more money than they get right now. The allowance is too small.
This article is published in the 10 June 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Caring Changed my Life