This week (8th – 14th June) is Carers Week. One week to highlight the work done by “informal” or unpaid carers in the UK. There are 6.5 million carers in the UK (Carers UK, 2020) and, for most of us, it’s a group of people that are invisible. I wanted to write a bit about my experience as a carer and how we can better identify and support carers as student nurses and during our careers.
I used to be a carer – for my son who died from cancer a few years ago. It still feels a bit odd to describe myself like that because, when you’re a parent, it’s part of the job to look after your child. It is actually very common for people not to consider themselves as carers, so it can help if the professionals involved recognize that people may need extra support. The extra strain of caring for a loved one with additional needs is immense. We spent a lot of time together in hospital – usually on the same ward or clinic and got to know the staff. During this time, I realised how easy it is to lose your identity when you are a carer. Even as a parent, you’re asked your name when you are first admitted and almost no one uses it after that day. You become “mum” or “dad”. Obviously, all the focus is on your loved one, but you can feel as if you are fading into the background when you haven’t had sunlight on your skin for the best part of a month, or eaten a freshly cooked, nutritious meal.
I remember exactly which hospital staff knew my name. I really valued that and felt more able to open up to them as a result because I knew that they saw me as a person in my own right. I’m not suggesting that, as student nurses, we learn the names of everyone who comes through the double doors to see a patient, but when we are working on wards where patients are there for a long time and have the same visitors every day, or adults staying with them on paediatric wards, it can make a big difference and affects how people perceive their loved one’s care.
I know that it’s often said that while we are students, we have more “free time” on placement than we will ever have when we start working, but again, when I was in hospital with Joseph, I appreciated it when a student nurse offered me a cup of tea or spent a few minutes chatting to me. Carers aren’t just an extra pair of hands so that you don’t have to feed the patient or take them to the toilet, we are people and we want to make the job easier for healthcare staff, but it is nice to be acknowledged and appreciated.
It can also be the case that staff sometimes see carers as an obstacle to a patient’s treatment, either trying to get the patient home before they’re ready, or blocking their discharge. I think it’s important to remember that people are just trying to do what’s best for the people they care about. It can be really frightening facing a home life with new skills like NG feeds or injecting your partner or changing the dressing on a Hickman line, or when treatment ends for whatever reason. Fear can manifest itself in many ways and I will hold my hands up and say that I have lost my temper when I’ve felt that things were moving too far out of my control but sometimes it can feel like the only way to make yourself heard.
In short, carers do an incredibly important job and know more about your patient and their care than most, if not all, of the healthcare professionals. See them. Ask them how they are. Treat them how you would like to be treated. It will be worth it.
Written by: Sarah Mayman, first year student nurse at Leeds Beckett University
Carers UK (2020) About Carers Week [Online] London: Carers UK. Available from: <https://www.carersweek.org/about-us> [Accessed 09.06.20].