Could we care less about people who care?
At some point we all need care. Why is it so undervalued?
The CSO Irish Health Survey 2019, published last December, found that there were more than half a million family carers in the country.
We all start life needing care. If we live long enough, many of us end up needing care and at some point in the middle we will likely be responsible for the care of others. Care and caring should be at the centre of how we think about our culture, but it’s frequently treated as an afterthought or an aberration. We are strangely in denial about how much caring work is required to make our society function.
I was a care worker for a short period in the noughties and I wrote about the experience in my recent book of essays OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea. I looked after intellectually disabled adults in residential care homes. At the time I was back in college studying for a master’s degree, I had a relative who worked for an organisation that couldn’t get enough staff (it was the height of the Celtic Tiger) and I needed the money. These aren’t typically the motives you’d ideally require from someone who is caring for you or a loved one.
At 27, I could drive, I had finished school and college, published articles and released records. I could waffle for hours about abstract ideas about ethics. But I had never helped dress someone in the morning. I had never thickened a drink to make it easier to swallow. I had never lifted someone into a shower or cleaned someone after a toilet accident.
Nowadays, to me, these feel like basic things that every young person should experience. I found caring physically demanding, fun, boring, fun again, boring again, thought-provoking and, frequently, moving. It was also exhausting, but I could leave it behind every evening, unlike many of the more than half a million family carers counted in the CSO Irish Health Survey 2019 (published last December).
I really liked the people I cared for and I wasn’t bad at the job but I realised that some of my colleagues were virtuosic in their ability to care. These people seemed to have an endless capacity for empathy and a really well-honed ability to work out what the person they were caring for needed in the moment. It made me realise that the people who decided that care work was relatively “unskilled” had probably never engaged in much caring activity themselves.
Carers are frequently praised as though they are saints, which is really a backhanded compliment because it implies that their work is instinctive and moral and doesn’t need to be incentivised with good pay. In contrast, it is often argued that acquisitive managerial types will leave the country if they get anything less than a high six-figure salary. To which I say: good; please leave.
During the pandemic there has been greater appreciation for what constitutes important frontline work, but for the most part we prefer to acknowledge this with collective hand claps rather than pay increases. We undervalue caring. Care assistants, for example, typically earn about €12 an hour in Ireland on average. Many carers earn less. Family carers must often subsist on €220 a week (if they get anything at all).
Part of this is about who does the caring. There’s a whole nexus of misogyny, classism and racism that allows us to downgrade some forms of work. In households, the burden of caring for older or sicker people often (but not always) falls to women. In our wider society the work of looking after vulnerable people is frequently done by people who are vulnerable themselves, increasingly working-class migrants who are, in some cases, undocumented and unprotected.
As a journalist, I’ve come to realise that most social issues are really issues about care. Most of the big political problems of our time – housing, healthcare, inequality – revolve around people not receiving sufficient care. This country’s most shameful legacies, the mother and baby homes, the industrial schools, the clerical abuse, are all failures of care. And we seem to have learned little from it.
The outcomes for children leaving our care system are still unacceptably bad and we are still in denial about the amount of care people in our community need. I have met amazing people – key workers helping homeless addicts, mothers caring for dying children, hospice nurses caring for people in their last hours. But they don’t typically get the ear of government in the ways entrepreneurs, lobbyists and economists do. Our culture valorises well-paid business types carving pointless niches in an increasingly abstract economy but we put those who physically care for others at the bottom of our employment hierarchies.
Many of us are also in denial about the fact that we will likely someday need care ourselves. This is partly because we’ve bought into a culture of self-help and self-sufficiency that individualises and pathologises need. We fool ourselves that we can, through acts of will and wealth accumulation, avoid illness and ageing and bad luck.
I’ve internalised these toxic attitudes. In recent years I’ve had issues with both mental health and chronic pain. In each instance, the thing that upsets me most is the fear that I might become dependent on others, that, to use a horrible term, I might become a “burden”. This is an awful way to think and I should know better. It’s premised on the notion that people need to “earn” their place in society rather than being intrinsically deserving of dignity and care. It’s premised on the idea that if we’re not economically productive we aren’t important. It leads to people feeling like they’re failing because their health is poor. It avoids the wider reality that we are all dependent on each other all of the time and life could throw any one of us a curve ball that means we need care.
Currently the things valued most in our society often appear to be self-sufficiency, career ambition, academic achievement, artistic creativity and asset speculation. Caring isn’t quite up there. In reality, caring abilities should be nurtured, prized and rewarded above those other pursuits (and this shouldn’t be seen as a slight to those things. . . except maybe asset speculation).
We should structure society around the very notion of care. Replacing the constitutional reference to a woman’s place being in the home with a more pointed non-gendered reference to the significance of carers (as recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly) could be a start. Caring is skilled, necessary and important work and being cared for is natural and, for many of us, inevitable. We need to create a care-ocracy (sorry for the terrible word), rebuilding society on the basis that care is at the centre of everything. Because it is at the centre of everything. We’re just very slow to realise it.
As part of the Bealtaine Festival, Patrick Freyne is chairing an online discussion on care and the politics of care with Margaret Oryang, cofounder of the Great Care Co-op; Sheila Robertson, a resident of Regina House in west Clare; Donal Behan former carer and member of Alone and writer, broadcaster and former senator Marie Louise O’Donnell. The discussion takes place on Thursday, May 13th at 3pm and costs €5 to attend. More details: bealtaine.ie/bealtaine-event/bealtaine-discussion-series-care/