‘Family carers are a hidden army of exceptional people fulfilling a role they did not ask for’

Health Hero: Fighting for fairness on behalf of nation’s carers

Catherine Cox: “My proudest achievement is the fact that here are over 800 people across Ireland involved in Family Carers Ireland.” Photograph: Mark Steadman

Catherine Cox: “My proudest achievement is the fact that here are over 800 people across Ireland involved in Family Carers Ireland.” Photograph: Mark Steadman

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Catherine Cox lives in Carlow with her husband Ronan and three children – Aoife (22), David (19) and Brian (12). Alongside her busy family life, she is also head of communications and carer engagement with Family Carers Ireland (FCI).

Every week, we will honour someone deserving of the hero tag. If you would like to nominate, go to irishtimes.com/healthheroes
Every week, we will honour someone deserving of the hero tag. If you would like to nominate, go to irishtimes.com/healthheroes

Over the course of the 18 years she has been working with the organisation, the mother of three has been involved in supporting family carers, highlighting their immense contribution to society and also making the public aware of the serious “lack of supports and services available for them to carry out their caring roles safely”.

Along with this, her role has also involved fighting for fairness for those who give up their time to look after their loved ones and advocating on their behalf. Lobbying for change and affecting policy change are also very important aspects of her role in the organisation.

We spoke to this health hero to find out what is important to her, what she is proud of, how she relaxes and crucially, what needs to be done to change the health system in Ireland.

What is your proudest achievement?

“My proudest achievement is the fact that here are over 800 people across Ireland involved in Family Carers Ireland. Over 700 of these are front line home-care workers who go into the homes of family carers and provide necessary supports and in-home respite care.

Over the years, thousands of family carers have been supported through FCI’s in-home respite care and have been provided with necessary information, advocacy and training. Another central to the role of the organisation is our ongoing work advocating for the rights and entitlements of Ireland’s family carers.

“So for many years, with the support of carers on the ground, the media and high profile individuals, we have lobbied Government for the introduction of a statutory entitlement to homecare. And in 2017, the Government announced a consultation on this issue which I believe would not have come about without our sustained lobbying and pressure.”

Do you know a ‘Health Hero’?

What motivates you in your work and Life?

“It is very rewarding to see individual carers lives improved as a result of our work at FCI, both on the ground and at Government level. Admittedly it can at times be a very slow and disheartening process but we will continue to fight and advocate for carers across Ireland, many of whom do not have a voice.

“Family carers are a hidden army of exceptional people fulfilling a role that they did not ask for, out of love and compassion. Day in and day out, many of them work 24/7 with little fuss or need for praise – in fact, all family carers have ever asked for is access to the proper resources and supports that will assist them in their caring roles.”

What do you do to keep mind and body healthy and well?

“I keep healthy by walking with a group of people three or four times a week. This is not only a great social outlet but it offers me a chance to detach from work for a while.”

What are the most important factors to maintain a healthy society?

“I believe that looking after your mental health is equally as important as looking after your physical health and poor mental health is an issue which we see arise amongst family carers quite a lot. Thousands of family carers are living in crisis across the country – they urgently need a break and the price they are paying, by looking after their loved ones, is detrimental to their own personal mental health and wellbeing.

“Caring can have a negative impact on a person’s mental health which is all the more compounded by the lack of available supports. This is why we must continue to reinforce the necessity for flexible respite – both in the home and in residential care.”

What needs to be done in Ireland to achieve this?

“I believe that caring must be shared between family carers, the wider family, the local community as a whole and the State; with family carers being considered equal partners in care planning by health and social service providers.”

What do you think is the most pressing health issue in Ireland today?

“Ireland has an increasingly aging population and by 2030, just 10 years away, one in five people will need to provide care in the home. A report in 2017 from Tilda showed that 42 per cent of all care received at end of life is provided by unpaid family carers so this is an issue that definitely needs to be looked at.”

How do you think the Minister for Health needs to tackle this?

“I think it really is crucial that the Government makes this issue a priority, ensuring that the necessary funding and planning structures are in place. Because carers, and a new generation of future family carers, will continue to remain in crisis until proper and effective frameworks are implemented.”

What do you do to relax and unwind?

“As far as I’m concerned, there is no better tonic than spending time with family and friends.”

What makes you laugh?

“At the moment, we are watching re-runs of the Friends series which is giving us all plenty of laugh out loud moments.”

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

“If I could live anywhere I wanted to, it would have to be Greece as I just love the climate there and coupled with the friendly nature of the people, it would be the perfect home away from home.”

- Do you know a Health Hero? Every week, we will honour one of the people deserving of the hero tag. If you would like to nominate someone, go to irishtimes.com/healthheroes

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