Care in all its forms needs a much louder voice in policy discussions and to be at the heart of the next election.
Many of us are already and many more will become carers in the future, looking after older relatives or partners. Emily Kenway’s recent book Who Cares is a passionate call for care to be much more embedded in everyday life, including in work, and for people to recognise that it is everyone’s responsibility because we will all be affected sooner or later as chronic and other health issues increase as more people live longer and as we face up to problems in our professional care infrastructure.
Kenway argues that we are just tweaking things around the edges at present and that the debate on care tends to centre on logistical, task-based issues rather than care itself, which is undervalued. She says: “Care isn’t an occasional interruption of an otherwise relatively steady pattern of life. For many types of long-term illnesses, it’s the inverse – interruption is the constant.”
Many people live with the person they are caring for, but a lot don’t and some live a fairly long distance from the person they are caring for. I spoke to one women recently who is spending every weekend driving 75 miles to see her dad after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her mother had also recently died after a long illness and she herself had arthritis. She has reduced her hours, but that means her pension contributions are also reduced and she will have to work longer. This is the reality of what many people are facing or will face. We are currently waiting for the Carer’s Leave Act to become law next year, but, although it is a step forward, it provides just one week’s flexible, unpaid leave per year. It doesn’t seem in any way adequate to the level of the problem.
Some are caring from even greater distances. My partner has been going back and forth to Spain over the last months to look after a close relative. He is not the main carer, but he wants to do his bit to help out. The family are on shifts, visiting the relative and providing care, but most are working too. Knowing when to go to be most helpful is difficult as is understanding what support, outside medical care, is available in another country. When he goes he needs to go for a few days. His employer is very supportive. Of course, some employers allow their employees to work from abroad, although this has been derided from some quarters as ‘working from the beach’ as if that is the only reason people go abroad.
Many of the problems we have today are due to the fact that our societies are ageing and we have not adequately prepared or funded care infrastructure. Yet politicians and commentators often fail to address this in any serious way, preferring to be diverted into playing the blame game. Immigration is more controversial and division seems to sell better than care, which is seen as somehow worthy and dull, in large part because it is mainly women who do it.
Already with Nigel Farage in the jungle we can see how much immigration is going to be foregrounded in the general election. Yet care accounts for a large section of the immigration numbers, alongside international students who are basically holding up the UK higher education system. Who is going to do the care jobs that support all the informal carers? The sick and disabled, who are supposed to be working from home? We need a serious discussion about care in this country and not one that is fuelled by bigotry and hate.