Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra

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Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Carer spotlight: Alice’s story of duty, isolation, identity 

Jun 13, 2023 | caring, Aging, Gender, Domestic Load, Grief, Family, Mental health, Feature

Written by Jesse Blakers

70.1% of primary caregivers cite “a sense of family responsibility” as the main reason that they became a carer. But what does that actually mean? Alice (a pseudonym) cared for her mum for over 30 years. Now in her 50s, she reflects on the sense of loyalty, love and family responsibility which shaped their relationship.

Duty 

“It was duty, it was devotion,” says Alice on why she was a carer for her mum. In the early years, she predominantly did domestic tasks like shopping, cooking and cleaning.

“Well, I had older siblings who–when I was hitting 13–they were getting married, moving out, living life. Mum was in chronic head, neck, spinal pain. […] And dad took any shift he could, just to keep the money coming in. So, I was the only one at home.”

Alice and her siblings had also seen how devoted their mum was to her own mum. The expectation was that, when you love someone, “that’s just what you do.”

“But it was not my choice.”

Once Alice had left home, her responsibilities remained: “I don’t think mum meant it maliciously, I just think I was the unmarried youngest kid who had no kids… so the expectation was ‘oh, Alice will do it!’”

Alice’s family saw an ‘absence’ of responsibilities–no kids, no partner–where there was actually a plethora of responsibilities; a demanding job, and Alice’s own health conditions. Although Alice was devalued as a woman without kids, she would never have “refused” to care for her mum. “I just wanted some understanding.”

There were never any conversations about the possibility of Alice taking on a care role.  It was expected of her, not only by her parents–who needed the children to “pull their weight” in the household–but also by her siblings. In a family of daughters, “The default was me.”

Isolation

I reached out to Ella, a Community Carer who provides in-home personal care and assistance to elderly people. She spoke about the different kinds of isolation her clients feel. “The amount of my clients who are so lonely and barely hear from their families is quite heartbreaking […]. The quality of life of my clients who have families continually involved and visiting is insurmountable compared to clients who are more isolated from their families.”

As Ella told me, it’s “about recognising the elderly person” and treating them like a human being. 

Alice became her mum’s main lifeline later in life, particularly after the death of her father. Her mum didn’t want to be a “burden” to the whole family. 

“I had a different perspective on mum […]. I saw her at her lowest, and mum didn’t know how to deal with that.” 

Her mum called her at 8am one morning; a “bad sign”, says Alice. Her mum revealed that she “‘hadn’t had any power all night.’ We were in the middle of winter. I called in sick [at work], drove over there… The fuse had blown, and she didn’t know how to fix it. So I found her in the middle of August, wrapped in blankets in a chair, shivering.”

However, “it was very isolating” to see her mum in this way. Other people weren’t allowed to see the “behind the scenes” version of Alice’s mum who was wrapped in blankets without heat on a winter morning.

Alice reflects on how her mum’s declining mental and physical health shrunk her mum’s world. “It’s really horrible watching your parents turn into children.” It is jarring when the roles of mother and daughter are reversed, and the new dynamic can even be “upsetting and frightening”.  

Identity

Caring for her mum became all consuming for Alice, too. “You know, she was my mum and I loved her.”

Alice and one of her siblings took on enormous responsibilities with their mum’s end-of-life care as well: “we were both running on fumes… we hadn’t had a nanosecond’s break.” It was doing day-to-day tasks and errands for her mum, preparing the house to be sold, getting her in and out of respite and nursing homes… all while holding down a full time job. 

Family members were saying, “You’re doing too much, this is killing you, you guys have got to have a life.” But Alice had invested all of herself in caring for her mum.

Being a carer became her identity, and it shaped how she interacted with the world around her. 

Having gone through her own personal difficulties, Alice realised she was “actively seeking the carer’s role to recover […]. I didn’t have to go to social engagements and I didn’t have to pretend everything was okay… It was just, “Oh no, sorry! I can’t do that today, I’ve gotta look after mum.”

“So after she died, I had this huge gap in my life. I missed my forties and my late thirties because I was a carer, and I missed my teenage years.”

“I spent so much of my life caring for her that I find it really hard now to fill in time. […] Even just recently I’ve still got this desire to ring her and make sure she’s okay.”

Alice tells me that, above all, it’s important to “be selfish and take some time for yourself. Because caring ends… And even though that’s really hard, you’ve got a life you’ve gotta go back to. And if you haven’t laid foundations for that life, then it’s really hard to kick start it again.”

Ella, too, confesses that, “I often run myself into the ground […]. I’m definitely learning to set boundaries and recognise that I can’t properly care for others unless I look after myself first.”

  • Please note: Picture at top is a stock photo.
Jesse Blakers

Jesse Blakers is a Global Studies graduate who studied at the University of Canberra. She's also a budding academic, with a current focus on queer representation in media. Jesse recently interned at BroadAgenda.

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