Email this article to a friend

A 'carer' holds the hand of 92-year-old man. (Odd Andersen / Afp / Getty Images)

The Ambiguities of Care

As they grow older, women may find themselves once again enlisted as unpaid caretakers.

BY Jane Miller

Caring for a sick spouse feels rather as motherhood felt. Lots of good advice, but in the end you have to do it yourself.

My husband, Karl, is ill, and I am now officially his “carer.” I even get letters addressing me as “Dear Carer.” “Carer” is a newish word here and for some reason it makes me uncomfortable. It barely appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, and until recently, it was used as Robert Browning used it in an 1850 poem, in which there is “a carer for none of it”—the “I don’t care a hoot or a straw or a button or a damn” kind of carer. As a child I did the usual amount of “not caring.” An “I don’t care” from me would be met characteristically with, “Don’t care was made to care.”

Assuring us that the word “care” doesn’t have its roots in the Latin “cura” (which means almost the same as “care”) or “caritas” (which does too), the OED also reminds us that the word “care” originally meant trouble, suffering, illness and so on, and comes from Anglo-Saxon. That meaning somehow flipped into “taking care” to avoid such miseries and then into something like concern, taking an interest in, even liking or loving, and, perhaps, looking after someone weighed down by the cares of the world, who might very easily be oneself. The parting shot of everyone currently visiting us in order to help me be a better carer is, invariably, “Take care.”

Perform a Google search for “carer” and you will find that a carer is typically an unpaid helper of a friend or relation. But that bypasses the huge number of courses nowadays that claim to train people for the “caring professions.” In this country, professional “carers” are usually very badly paid and asked to do the things that doctors and nurses don’t do, and to do them in record time. And they are frequently blamed for not doing these things as well as we ordinary people would do it.

In my role as a carer, I am invited to explore my recently acquired identity in seminars and gatherings of other carers. The difficulty there is that like others in the same position, I would need to employ another carer in order to leave the house to attend such gatherings. Instead, I stay at home, attempting to mitigate my husband’s woes, besieged by professional carers of different stripes, sent by busy doctors with no time for you. These carers are employed by several institutions—the National Health Service and local social services, among others—which duplicate each other’s offerings, and sometimes appear barely aware of each other’s existence. Most offerers of care are privately operated these days and their services are then sold to the state in the hope of making a profit, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that they seem to be competing with one another.

In one day I may be visited by someone suggesting I get a carpenter to put a handle above the bath or a board across it, and someone else taking blood or urine samples, while a third will advise about what are safe quantities of morphine and other painkillers for me to administer, a fourth will propose tempting delicacies I might prepare for my husband, and a fifth will inquire about his and my own spiritual condition. These are all carers, and they sometimes spend quite long stretches of time telling me about their own and other forms of care I could make use of and pay for. They are always young, pretty and kind, anxious to help and concerned for me. In the end, through nobody’s fault, nothing much has changed. I have made several cups of tea for them and am almost too exhausted to take a cup up to my husband, who is the patient victim of all this care and appalled to find himself in need of it all.

It feels rather as motherhood felt. Lots of good advice, but in the end you have to do it yourself. The patient, like a new baby, is there for you to learn on. And the worst bit of that is that you’re supposed to have a natural talent for caring—all decent people have—as all women are expected to have a natural motherly streak. You’re also expected to make intelligent use of all that advice pouring out from the professionals, which is likely to be contradictory and prey to fashion. And meanwhile, the object of all this attention is ill, in pain, and not all that interested in the condition of your learning curve any more than your first baby was.

Jane Miller first worked in publishing, then as an English teacher and finally at the London University Institute of Education. She retired as Professor Emeritus in 1998.

View Comments