The current debate in the news about our political parties’ views on the funding of social care for the elderly and more vulnerable members of our communities, focuses on whether government funding should go to local authorities, the NHS or the providers of care. Wherever the funds come from for the coordination and delivery of care, it is obvious that need for ‘joined-up’ social care is growing. Often, it seems that the joined-up thinking is left to the families and friends of those in need of caring services; it is often these family and friends who provide the majority of the care that is needed.
A glance at the website of carers’ charities or government agencies reveals a mountain of information and advice about how to access what is available to carers and their dependents. Navigating the information mountain demands energy, persistence and confidence, which many carers display in abundance. Perhaps what needs a higher profile is the provision of emotional support for carers. Some carers need an outlet for feelings connected with not always coping or the impact of coping but living a life dedicated to the care of another. At times, there is no simple solution to the difficulties which can arise from being a carer and having somebody not offer advice or the phone number of an agency, but it can be a relief to have someone focus on what might be complex and conflicted feelings, or pay attention to the person who exists outside of the caring role.
Complexity and conflict can characterise the feelings of those who suddenly find themselves as the carer of someone with whom they enjoyed a different kind of relationship, such as those whose spouse or partner becomes in some way newly dependent due to illness or accident. At times the transition is seamless, but not always. Parents who spend a pregnancy imagining one kind of future with their expected child and who have to quickly adjust to different possibilities, due to birth injury or a previously unknown medical condition, may need to embrace early parenthood whilst experiencing a profound sense of grief. What’s not in question here is love; but a range of other unspoken, less socially acceptable feelings may sit alongside that love.
For some people, not being the primary caregiver can cause emotional difficulty. For instance, an adult child who lives a long way from elderly parents, and who coordinates care at a distance but isn’t the one who delivers, it can experience anxiety about not seeing the quality of care at first-hand; a spouse who decides not to carry on living with a partner who has been affected by illness or accident might feel ashamed of not persisting with the relationship ‘in sickness and in health’; a parent who arranges for an adult but dependent child to move into residential care may feel a mixture of guilt and loss of purpose.
People in such situations may be dealing with what has been called by those who work with bereaved clients ‘disenfranchised grief’; a sense of loss which is compounded by a sense that they are not entitled to support or understanding, or the inability of others to understand their sense of loss.
Counselling often offers a space for us to speak the unspoken, to become aware of feelings which are hidden even to ourselves. The many carers in our communities who aren’t in the news headlines which are driven by the ‘social care debate’ would indeed benefit from a less fragmented system of care and a better resourced social care system. Just as important though, is increased access to the emotional support and space which can be found in a counselling relationship.