Carers need to be selfish enough to look after themselves

Carers often experience burnout, stress and exhaustion. They need all the help they can get

“ . . . Relentless, exhausting and often unpleasant or demeaning, with little or no support, reward or recognition.”

That's a description of the work of carers from former carer Catherine Macadam writing in Coaching Today.

Caring is often seen as an exclusively female role, but Central Statistics Office figures tell us that four of every 10 carers are men. We think of carers as "wonderful" or "great" people who fly around performing good acts. On the contrary, according to Macadam, "it is common for carers to experience burnout, stress, exhaustion, loss of confidence and self-esteem".

In other words, carers are just like the rest of us. They are ordinary human beings who find themselves pitching in and doing what needs to be done out of love (usually) or duty (sometimes).


Most of us praise carers, as we should, but the role can be utterly challenging. As Hugh Marriott puts it in his book The Selfish Pig's Guide to Caring, ". . . the fact is that most of us experience periods when we despise ourselves for doing it, hate [the person we care for] for being the cause of our troubles and yearn for escape".

When Macadam finished caring in 2011, she set up a coaching programme at her local carers’ centre in the UK. This continues to give her an insight into the experience and feelings of unpaid carers.

Carers not only look after the person who needs care – sometimes they are expected to look after everyone else in the household as well. And it’s not easy to ask for space and help if one has taken on the persona of Superman or Superwoman.

So one of the things carers need to do, according to Macadam, is to direct compassion to themselves and not only to others. That can lead them to ask for the help they deserve.

In fact carers, where possible, might need to practise a form of enlightened selfishness (my phrase, not hers) in which they let other, able-bodied family members cook their own meals and wash their own clothes and help with the work of caring.

Feelings of guilt

Beyond what Macadam writes, two additional points occur to me. The first is that sometimes other relatives visiting the cared-for a person in hospital can be harshly critical of the hospital staff, perhaps to assuage their own feelings of guilt. It’s the carer, though, who is left to repair the relationship with the hospital. Sometimes criticism is justified, of course, but think before you speak.

The second is that when the caring ends, typically when the cared-for person dies, it can mean the loss of the whole world the carer has inhabited for years. If you have built your day around spending time in the hospital with the person you care for and if you’re on first-name terms with other patients and staff, then you experience a double loss when your loved one dies.

Macadam also points to the unknown numbers of workplace carers, doing a full day’s work and then going home to care for a family member for the evening and weekends. She describes these as carers “hiding in plain sight”, unable to talk to managers and colleagues about their caring responsibilities. Employers can help a lot by making it possible for these carers to remain in their jobs.

On average, carers provide 39 hours of unpaid care per week – the equivalent of a full-time career. And it’s not just adults who do the work of caring. About 4,000 of our carers are children under the age of 15 and on average they provide 16 hours of care per week, according to the CSO.

Caring isn’t sexy. You are probably not going to see the topic on the covers of the glossy magazines in your local shop. While carers are just ordinary people, it’s good to acknowledge that they perform heroic acts – but they are still ordinary people and they still need all the help they can get from State and family.

Padraig O'Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (