Health and well-being for carers

- September 2019

By Kylie Burnett, Partner at Parbery Consulting

As the carer discussion comes to the forefront of Australian media, a lot of attention is shifting to whether carers are delivering adequate standards of care to our ageing population. While it is extremely important that our loved ones are looked after appropriately, I think there is an important aspect of this discussion that often goes unaddressed. Who’s caring for the carer, and how can carers better care for themselves?

As a teenager, I was a carer for a parent suffering from a mental illness, and I completely understand the toll it can take. After recently reading a great article on self-care for carers and reflecting following R U OK Day, I began thinking about the importance of looking after those that care for others, how workplaces might be able to assist them, and the ways that carers can maintain their physical and mental well-being. My following tips aren’t just for carers in the occupational sense, but for carers of all kinds. I don’t take these tips lightly and I understand that sometimes doing any of these things may seem too hard. However, acting on this advice might just make things a little easier.

1. Let people in
If you don’t trust people with what’s going on in your life, then they won’t be able to do anything to support you. There can be a stigma associated with being a carer, in particular if you are caring for someone with a mental illness. At times, you may face that stigma as much as the person with the mental illness does, but communicating your thoughts and feelings with others is essential for feeling heard and developing support networks of your own.

2. Tell your friends and family what they can do to support you
They won’t always be able to get this right by themselves, and it may be that you don’t need anything now, but them having knowledge of what behaviour does/does not help – and being prepared to help–is sometimes enough to make you feel adequately supported. They may also be able to help you work out what you need to help yourself.

3. Recognise your emotions relating to changes in relationship dynamics
If you are in a carer role that is only temporary, having to change the relationship dynamic when the person is well again can be extremely challenging. In circumstances of mental illness, it can often feel like the person will become unwell again at any time, leaving you with a persistent fear or stress. This can often progress to the point that you try to control all aspects of your environment just to avoid potential triggers for relapse. This process can be just as hard as when the person first became unwell, so be prepared for this and plan for how the recovery transition will work for you.

4. Use your experience and role to recognise, support and listen to other carers
As those with first-hand experience in caring, we need to show leadership and be active in developing policies and strategies that support carers. We need to ask carers what help they need and what processes for accessing this help would work best for them. Only from passing on our knowledge and experience will we be able to improve the resources available to these people.

When you are a carer, it is easy to forget to care for yourself, but letting your own health and well-being suffer will almost certainly affect your ability to provide quality care for those you care for – after all, there comes a point where trading in your own health for that of the person you are caring for stops working.

This is why it’s so important to practice self-care and nurture your mental and physical health as much as possible when undertaking such a difficult role. If the tips I’ve listed above seem helpful to you, please feel free to find additional advice from the article that inspired me, available here.