Caring Through the Pages
Carers' Week 2020
Carers' stories are a useful way to help others understand caring in the real world. To recognise that one of us can become a carer, at any time in our lives. For Carers' Week 2020, the theme is ‘Making Caring Visible’ and so I wanted to put my own spin on carers stories and look for those that are already visible in books, TV and film.
Alongside the characters we found, I asked the Mobilise Community to add their own ‘Characters who Care’ to the list and share their thoughts on what makes a character a carer. It’s surprising just how many ‘Characters who Care’ are out there when we start looking.
Why is being visible important?
We are often told that there are 7 million carers in the UK, and many of us will be in a caring role at some point in our lives. But, how do we know? When we started talking about this in the Mobilise community, we found many didn’t know that they were a carer straight away.
Our unpaid carers were keen to talk about the importance of carer visibility when recognising that their role were different to medical professionals or employers. I also heard that many do not like the term ‘carer’, but rather that they are a spouse, parent, child, sibling or grandparent.
“It’s just what families do.”
“It was in our vows, in sickness and in health... a promise we made to each other on our wedding day.”
Whether we use the term 'carer' or we prefer something else, it’s important to know that there are others who share similar experiences, challenges and emotions out there. It reminds us that we are not alone. The characters in books, TV and film let us follow their stories and find out what makes them a carer. By highlighting their caring stories, it might just help us to identify the carers in our own stories too.
Physical disabilities and condition-specific films
As in the life of a carer when I started this project, I naturally found myself thinking of ‘the cared for’ first. I found stories where one character had a physical disability or the storyline focused on a particular condition. For example, Dot Cotton (Eastenders) took on a Caring role for her husband, Jim Branning, following his stroke, both in their home and later in a Care Home, before his passing. The soap opera explores Dot’s caring role, her struggles and the difficult decision of placing her husband in a Care home, an experience which many carers face within their caring journeys.
There are also many carers in stories which focus on a particular condition, including the Fitzgerald Family in ‘My Sisters Keeper’ and the families of the teenagers (Grant Family and Meredith Newman) in Five Feet Apart. Although they both have tragic endings, the storylines focus on the family’s determination to go to any measure to keep their loved one safe and alive as well as their personal emotional battles.
Another example is Jo March from Little Women who cares for her sister Beth at the end of her life. Interestingly, Jo speaks of her caring role as an opportunity for learning as she gained skills and qualities which help her in her life including patience, forgiveness, faith and trust.
This is a reflection of many carers, who whilst facing challenges and struggles, wouldn’t have the situation any other way. It is also a great reminder of the many skills carers can gain within their roles and the transferable value this can provide to those outside of that caring network, such as employers.
When exploring narratives which focus on an individual with a physical disability or condition, there were some themes which emerged including hospitals or care settings and the emotional journey of the family surrounding the character who is being cared for. Importantly, the distinctions including the age and familial connections of the characters highlight how everyone involved in the support network of an individual can be seen as a Carer.
‘Young carer’ is a term becoming more well-known in society but it is often hard to determine what makes someone a young carer as the role can vary greatly. By looking at some of the characters that represent young carers, it helps us to understand what their roles might look like. When thinking about younger carers, the first character that came to mind was Charlie Bucket.
In the story, Charlie’s four Grandparents share a bed in their tiny home (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and are primarily cared for by Mrs Bucket. The grandparents are described as so old and tired that they never get out of bed. The image of four bed bound grandparents, the selflessness of Charlie and importance of family suggest that Charlie has a role in the day to day life of his family.
Another example of a potential younger carer is Billy Elliot who keeps an eye on his Grandmother. Grandma Edna lives with the Elliots and suffers with senility, loneliness and forgetfulness due to her early stage Alzheimer’s. In the story, Billy is told by his father to stay home and look out for his grandmother instead of going to Ballet and is seen finding her when she wanders off.
Although it is not the typical stereotype of caring, the sense of always being on standby and checking on the person regularly is a common characteristic of a caring role, including for younger carers.
More practical examples include helping with the housework and shopping. For example, Little Red Riding Hood who regularly brings her grandmother food. The interpretations of the story and character of Little Red Riding Hood suggest the routineness of the task and her sense of duty to care for her Grandmother. Another example is Snow White who is aged between 14 and 16 who manages the housework of the home for the seven dwarves. These stories highlight how helping with the practical stuff is also a part of caring.
One recent story in Eastenders focused on the physical and emotional journey of Bailey Baker, a young carer for her mum who had multiple sclerosis before her passing. Stories like this help highlight some of the challenges for young carers who can view their situation as their ‘normal’ despite knowing that they do not take part in some of the same things as their peers.
Outside the narrative
Surprisingly, there were several narratives which touch on caring situations which may have happened at another time or developed outside of the main storyline. For example, Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) provides insight into how she looked after her sister during her mother’s emotional breakdown, following her husband’s passing.
This insight into their past sheds light on the reason for Katniss’ protectiveness for her sister Primrose and why she volunteers herself as a tribute to keep her sister safe. Looking after siblings and maintaining their well-being can be a trait of a young carer who looks after a parent.
Leo Collins from The Vow provides a unique perspective on caring as the marriage breaks down (as Paige loses her memories) and the end of the film shows Leo supporting Paige emotionally through her recovery. Although it is a story of love, it is also a story that many carers who support a loved one with memory challenges can connect to. Sometimes they are a spouse, parent or child and sometimes they feel like a stranger but the relationship is one of love and care.
Another example is the Peaceful Family. Alongside Mrs Peaceful, Charlie and Thomas Peaceful help to care for Big Joe, the eldest of the three brothers. After contracting meningitis as a child, Big Joe is said to have brain damage and the mind of a child and was known to be over sensitive and to run away when he was unable to process his emotions. As the story unfolds, you find out about some of the times that the Peaceful brothers provided emotional support to Joe.
When thinking of caring in this way, George Milton also came to mind as he had promised Aunt Clara to look after Lennie in Of Mice and Me. it was clear that he felt responsible for Lennie’s well-being. Reflecting on that now, it is possible that George cares for Lennie whilst they both gain support from the friendship - “I got you to look after me and you got me to look after you.” Although not all aspects of the story translate to real life, there is some truth in that Caring is not a one way street, and in many ways carers and their loved ones help each other.
When making carers visible, it is important to recognise that not all carers look or act alike. Whilst these characters represent some carers, they do not all call themselves a carer within their stories, and similarly, many carers don’t want to in real life but they each have a role to play and a caring story worth sharing.
Thank you to everyone who contributed. Here’s the full list we came up with.
Bailey Baker, Eastenders
Billy Elliot, Billy Elliot
Charlie Bucket, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Dot Cotton, Eastenders
Fitzgerald Family, My Sister's Keeper
George Milton, Of Mice and Men
Grant Family, Five Feet Apart
Jo March, Little Women
Joe, Meet The Genies
Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games
Leo Collins, The Vow
Little Red Riding Hood, Little Red Riding Hood
Maria Kutschera, The Sound of Music
Meredith Newman, Five Feet Apart
Peaceful Family, Private Peaceful
(I do not own the rights to any of the images)