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The impact of unpaid caring

With thanks to the team at Crossroads Care Surrey, for writing this great piece of content about the impact of caring. Exploring how we can put our own healthy boundaries in place to help us to manage the impact of our caring role on our wellbeing.

Illustration of a man caring for someone.

Acknowledging how healthy boundaries work

Being a carer impacts our lives in multiple ways. Every carer knows how easily the myriad tasks involved in caring for a loved one can grow to fill the time available.

The people we care for are often our nearest and dearest. So it’s understandable that we want them to be happy and comfortable.

The downside to this is that we sometimes can neglect ourselves. Caring takes up time, both in the practical aspects of being a carer and in the way it can dominate our thoughts.

"Fortunately, by recognising the impact caring has on us, we can take action to redress the balance a little. By nurturing ourselves for our own sakes, we can be more effective carers too."

Why does caring have such a big impact on our lives?

The clue is in the name. Caring isn’t just doing; there’s an emotional aspect to it as well. This means that much of the hands-on caring we do comes with additional emotional weight.

Caring can also dominate our thinking. For example, once we have got our loved ones dressed for the day, our minds don’t switch off. As carers, it's natural to prepare ourselves for the worst. And what comes with that are often anxious thoughts.

Head of Carer Support Suzanne, shares helpful tips on how we can manage these anxious thoughts if we're currently experiencing them.

The next item is breakfast or medication or contacting the doctor.

Although we may have finished the immediate task(s) and possibly even sat down with a book or the TV, we’re always watching the clock or listening out for the person we care for.

This can greatly impact our ability to rest and replenish. It isn't just sleep that replenishes us. There are in fact seven types of rest we each need, which can be harder for a carer to access.

What areas of life are impacted by caring?

Caring impacts every area of our lives. Caring affects paid work, with many of us reducing our working hours or leaving work entirely, to manage the juggle.

It can affect relationships within the family, as well as meaning we have less free time for meeting new people and nurturing friendships. It can be difficult to find time for hobbies and exercise, and to prioritise self-care.

This matters because while we are carers, we are real people too. We’re not just an extension of the person we care for. We deserve to spend time and energy on ourselves – not only does it do us good, but it enables us to be better carers.

“We’re not just an extension of the person we care for. We deserve to spend time and energy on ourselves.”

Fortunately, it is possible to be ‘caring’ carers while also looking after ourselves. But to do it, we need to be mindful of the signs of self-neglect and know how to get the right support.

How do we tell when caring has taken over? What does self-neglect look like?

When caring gets too much, some of us may start to neglect ourselves. In extreme cases, self-neglect can mean not taking care of ourselves at all, not seeing the doctor or taking medicine if we’re ill, not washing or changing our clothes enough, or neglecting our homes so they’re no longer safe.

In extreme cases, our own neglect, filters through to neglect or poor care provision for our loved one, by us.

Of course, we don’t reach extreme self-neglect overnight. In many cases, it will start small.

We believe we don’t need new clothes. Or the highlight of the week is a trip to the hospital. We don’t cook our favourite foods because we choose recipes that are easy for our loved ones to eat.

These are all reasonable lines for carers to take, but if we don’t consciously put ourselves first, at least sometimes, we risk sliding down the slippery slope into self-neglect.

How to establish boundaries around caring

If we begin to recognise that caring is adversely affecting our lives, it’s time to establish some boundaries. Or even better - set them up before things start to slide!

Remember that boundaries are a positive part of any healthy relationship. Some people find it helpful to think of them as fences rather than brick walls. Boundaries preserve and protect, but they don’t shut people out.

“Tall fences make good neighbours”
"Boundaries keep us safe - anything could happen if you cross them!"

Boundaries establish what we will do and what we will not do. Many carers end up doing “everything” at home, in some cases helping our loved ones do things that they could do for themselves.

Sometimes this is because we have defined ourselves as carers and we feel that, say, leaving someone to brush their own hair or serving a meal that isn’t homecooked is unsupportive.

"Without boundaries, we can easily slip into unbeneficial emotional states, such as 'victim' or 'martyr.' Neither of which support us to be our best."

It's important to base care on what is actually needed, rather than what we feel is needed. We’re not neglecting our loved ones by letting them do things for themselves (where they can) – if anything, we’re empowering them!

We’re not neglecting the family if we don’t cook every night – we can let someone else do it, get something out of the freezer or even order a takeaway!

It's OK to let go of somethings.

Remember that to be effective in our role as carers, we also need to take care of ourselves and make time to see friends, take exercise or pursue our hobbies.

The Care Act 2014 identifies different wellbeing principles, and recognises that a carer’s wellbeing is to be protected equally to those they care for. The wellbeing principles offer a great starter for 10, when considering our own needs and boundaries:

  • Personal dignity (including treatment of the individual with respect)

  • Physical, mental and emotional health & wellbeing

  • Protection from abuse and neglect – safeguarding

  • Control by the individual over day-to-day life (including over what care and support is provided and the way it is provided)

  • Participation in work, education, training or recreation

  • Social and economic wellbeing

  • Domestic, family and personal life

  • Suitability of living accommodation

  • The individual’s contribution to society (citizenship)

Next steps

It may be helpful to start with the following questions:

  • What can I let go of?

  • What am I trying to prove by doing everything myself?

  • Whose expectations am I trying to meet?

  • What parts of what I do are essential?

  • What could be delegated? - our immediate response may be nothing - but have a really good think, and see the next question!

  • Who and where can I access support? (support comes in many forms, from cleaners to meals on wheels. From paid care support to a friendship or peer support group).

  • What do I want for myself each day?

Let's start putting those fences up.

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About the author

This piece was put together by the team at Crossroads Care Surrey.


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