One of the emerging themes of the current crisis is the awareness of a previous undervaluing of carers. As one carer has put it, “We have gone from ‘low-skilled’ workers to ‘key’ workers in less than a month – but our jobs remain the same, caring for the most vulnerable in our society.”
CARE is the simple word that will be on the new badges to be worn by workers in this sector, in recognition of what they do, and for the rest of us to recognise them as they go about their work. This simple word “care” is also a very precious one, but it has been open to misuse, or at least misapprehension in recent years.
Children removed from their birth parents in the UK are frequently described as “looked-after children”, or having been “taken into care”. Reports, and criminal trials, have shown that in many cases being looked after or shown care is far from what these youngsters have actually experienced. Using the word “care” hardly guarantees that this is what is being offered. This is no criticism of individual children and youth service social workers, but a fault-line in the whole of society’s responsibility to its most vulnerable members.
Care Homes are associated most often with the elderly and sufferers from dementia, but in fact a wide-range of needs and age of residents makes up this sector. Stories and coverage in the press in recent days have given a voice to those managing, under extremely difficult conditions, to keep these residents safe and indeed cared for. To this observer at least, the quiet, professional dignity and genuine compassion shown by care workers has been humbling and revealing.
For these are the people who do the jobs that many of us either cannot or will not do. The phrase “personal care” covers all the basic needs of keeping someone clean, fed and comfortable, but it is also about becoming a trusted presence in that person’s life while these intimate tasks are undertaken. To see this care as “low-skilled” is to misunderstand not just the value of care, but the meaning of being human.
On our screens have been carers, usually younger, often immigrant, almost always women, talking not about their pay, or their grievances, but about their worries for the people they are looking after. This intergenerational care is especially poignant at the moment, as the statistics for this disease tell of a stark age differential. The older and more infirm you are the more likely Covid-19 infection is to be fatal.
This has led to 1.5 million primarily older people to have been instructed to self-isolate for at least three months. The pattern of living in the UK means that for many of these 1.5 million it will be at least three months without seeing children or grandchildren. Those families who live with older relatives may have even more troubling concerns – how to protect grandparents while some household members have to go to out to work.
Bryan Sanderson CBE, Chairman of Home Renaissance Foundation offers a positive personal insight into this time as he acknowledges that social-distancing from grandchildren is particularly hard if, as his family are, we are used to spending time together. The new technology is a life-line, and keeping in contact via facetime, skype or zoom, makes this deeply unsettling time more bearable. Those needing care now, have all been caregivers in the past. Remembering our interconnectedness and our interdependence stops care becoming someone else’s responsibility and returns to its place at the heart of our lives and our homes.
We cannot yet see what the aftermath of this crisis will hold, but whatever else changes and is never the same again after Covid-19, let us hope that the undervaluing of care and carers are at the top of the list.