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The cost of caring – Sarah Akehust TSSF

There are over 6 million unpaid carers in Britain today; about one in 10 people. They care for people who have physical and mental health problems and cannot manage without their help. I am going to reflect on the experience of being a carer and where we might find God in this experience. Where is the grace to tread this particular path with the humility, love and joy which characterised the life of Francis?

For some, caring may be something they do just for a short time. My focus is particularly on those carers who look after someone with a long term condition, where doing things with and for that person means giving a lot of time, and giving it over years rather than months. Being an unpaid carer is a role that is rarely chosen and is more often thrust upon people in consequence of the illness, accident or disability of a family member or the birth of a disabled child. There is of course a choice in saying “yes” rather than “no”; however carers are often not prepared, equipped or supported to take on the practical and emotional load. There can be a great deal of loss involved for carers as their lives change, sometimes permanently, in ways they had not expected or wished for.

Saying “yes” may be something the carer is glad to do. Probably this is more likely if the relationship with the person who needs care is good, if the carer has support from family, friends and professionals, and if life remains materially comfortable. Having the right kind of temperament and having an end in sight both help. Unquestionably being a carer in the UK today is often hard. A survey of carers in Scotland entitled “Sick, tired and caring” (2011) looked at the impact of unpaid caring on health. Of the respondents, 96% said that caring had impacted negatively on their heath; over a quarter saw their health as poor; over half experienced long term illness or disability and 86% suffered from stress, anxiety and depression. A third said they were exhausted and half felt isolated. A report from the Princess Royal Trust for Carers (2010), entitled “Broke and Broken” found that a third of carers do not want to wake up in the morning because of dire financial circumstances, half want to run away from their caring role. Turning to drugs and alcohol to cope, being fearful of the future and wanting to harm the person who is cared for, mainly out of frustration, are all reported as significant in research.

I have been a carer for the past thirteen years, for my mother and for my son. The role was one I had not anticipated nor one to which I am naturally well suited. I enjoyed outdoor activities, especially hill walking, and also study and reading. I’d hoped to take an active role in the church or in the Third Order. In fact long walks, study and any kind of role outside of home and work have disappeared, and their place has been taken, much to my surprise, by chronic health problems and a very different kind of life.

Experience and research suggest then that, for a long term carer, staying well, happy and prosperous is rarely part of the package. Firstly, I think this is to do with the practical impact of caring, the lack of time and opportunity to do the things that maintain health, wellbeing and a good standard of living. It’s about not having support, and often not having financial resources either.

Secondly, there is the impact on mental health. The carer is likely to suffer with the person they are looking after, a person who may be in pain, who is experiencing loss, who may be fearful, sad or angry. Fighting to access help and support can be hugely frustrating. Also if the person who is cared for is excluded, for whatever reason, from normal social relationships, then the carer can easily be excluded too. In a society that applauds success, status and material prosperity, the carer may feel insignificant and alone. Being a carer can feel like participating in a giant game of snakes and ladders where the ladders go nowhere much and the snakes are everywhere. Everyday snakes of drabness, loneliness and misunderstanding and snakes that go all the way down: chronic illness, depression, broken relationships, poverty, debt and despair.

So where might God be found in this experience? Not necessarily in churches; they can be difficult places to take people who are disabled or ill, and it’s hard to be part of a church community if you have no spare time. When I can I go to a Benedictine monastery near my home. At Vespers on Sunday the monks sing (in translation) “Let not the soul, weighed down with sin, be an exile from the gift of life”. If “sin” in this context is all the mental and physical suffering that can go with being a carer, then the question is, what is this gift of life, how do we find it?

There is a story about one of the desert fathers which is relevant to this. A young monk seeks out a wise hermit and asks him which of three men is on the best path to achieve holiness. One has decided to serve God by giving away everything he owns and spending his life ministering to the poor. The second has decided to serve God by spending all his time in prayer and fasting. The third has become the servant of an old man who needs his help. The answer given is the third man as he has relinquished his will to that of another person. So giving up control over one’s own life can be seen as a path on which the gift of life is to be found, a path of humble service. It’s not about gritting your teeth, or about despairing; it’s about being willing to take up this particular cross even if you don’t make a great job of carrying it.

I see the giving up of one’s will for another person as central to finding God in all of this; it really is a hard thing to do, and the cause of many painful emotions. Martin Laird in his book “Into the Silent Land” describes “afflictive emotions” such as fear, sadness, guilt, anger. If these emotions dominate our minds they can cause inner chaos, distort our view of reality and undermine our health. For Christian carers they can prevent us from experiencing this “gift of life”. For me the way to loosen their grip is mainly through contemplative prayer, using the Jesus prayer or something similar. That is not an easy answer because the poverty of time is real, and regular time is what is needed. But prayer reveals to us the possibility of our experience being transformed from the inside out. Martin Laird suggests that it is in our suffering, not in spite of it, that we find Christ. God in Christ has taken into Himself the brokenness of our human condition; hence what seems like a dead end can become a doorway. In silent prayer we find that doorway to the gift of life which is the presence of Christ, a presence more real and substantial than either the ladders or the snakes.

For me, places are important, they help. So going to Vespers and Benediction at the monastery mean being somewhere where prayer is possible When I leave, nothing has materially changed; however, to echo Laird, whilst fear is still present I feel less afraid of fear, life will still be hard but I struggle less with that.

The gift of life is always about the present. If one is not dominated by fear of the future or sadness about the past there is more space to see Christ in everyday life, in those we care for, in the help that we receive and in the doorway open into the world of disability with all the potential that gives for friendship, understanding and service. It helps us to see that the rickety ladders and the frightening snakes are not the whole story; the fountain that is this gift of life is always flowing and irrigating our lives despite the hardship. It helps us be less harsh in our judgments of ourselves and others. And ultimately one hopes we may experience some of the joy and humility of Francis, finding in the path of being a carer the easy yoke that Christ speaks of, his hand upon our shoulder. f


Sarah Akehurst TSSF

Sarah Akehurst lives in the north of Scotland. She has three children, and is a Franciscan tertiary.