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Case study: The harsh reality of balancing work and unpaid care

As part of Carers Week, Louise Thompson shares her devasting story of having to travel 600-miles to care for her elderly parents due to feeling like there were no other options.

Newcastle-born Louise Thompson would sometimes tell colleagues in her Hampshire-based office that she was heading home early to finish a report. In reality, she would finish work after driving 300 miles up the M1 to spend a sleepless night caring for her frail parents following their dementia diagnosis.

Image: Louise and her father.

She’s just one of an estimated four million Brits who act as informal carers for elderly relatives, a figure forecast to soar in the coming years due to the UK’s rapidly aging society. Dubbed ‘carents’, they are the largest carer cohort in the UK and are often middle-aged children who either have to juggle caring with their careers – or give them up completely.

For Louise, it meant commuting from opposite ends of England to maintain the impossible balancing act of working as a senior company executive in Hampshire, whilst living in Sussex – and caring for her parents in the North East.

‘It was exhausting, and I found myself falling asleep at the wheel of my car,’ admitted the 55-year-old, who has since lost both of her parents. ’I was jeopardising my career, yet I wasn’t doing a good job for anyone. I was simply hurtling between three counties trying to balance my work and home lives, whilst caring for two people I could never turn my back on and would do anything for.

‘I was 300 miles away and my dad would call me asking for help with really basic things – even just changing the TV station.’

Louise continued: ‘It became my own triangle of hell, which was made worse by the lack of support available at the time. I’d find myself awake at 5am after sleeping in their living room, desperately Googling for help and – at the time – there was nothing in the way I needed to consume it. You felt incredibly isolated.’

Yet there are potentially millions of future carents sleepwalking into the role due to common misconceptions about who is responsible for caring for older relatives in later life and what that really entails – along with a misguided assumption that they’ll never become carers.

Help is available

A poll carried out ahead of Carers Week has revealed 50% of British adults believe they’ll never need to care for someone, despite the looming care crisis. The research, which was carried out by a North East social enterprise called The Carents Room, also uncovered the shocking toll the role is having on carents like Louise. Half of all carers for elderly relatives have neglected their own health in order to do the role, the poll found, while 60% say their mental health has suffered.

‘Many assume that the state will provide for them in later life, meaning that people, particularly in younger age groups, generally give little thought to planning for their old age. Furthermore, individuals often have a residual faith that their family will look after them in old age,’ said Dr Jackie Gray, founder of The Carents Room.

An experienced Tyneside GP and public health consultant, Dr Gray launched The Carents Room after her own experience of caring for her elderly father highlighted the unique issues carents encounter – from isolation to a lack of resources. The platform is designed to give carents the support and opportunities needed to make their lives easier. Louise described it as a ‘lifeline’ for carents, particularly those feeling alone or isolated on their journey.

Image: Jackie Gray, founder of The Carents Room.

What’s more, on the back of her own experience she’s created an app called ‘Myfolks’, which she’s funded by cashing in a pension pot. The digital program aims to tackle the ‘killer’ that is social isolation by allowing carents to book someone who is DBS checked to help temporarily ease the strain. Often former carents themselves, they can help with odd jobs – such as reading letters – or simply provide much-needed company over a cuppa.

Having realised the need for the service on the back of her own experience, Louise has warned that many Brits – particularly those near retirement – may have their dreams of an easy retirement shattered.

Dr Gray added: ‘Being a carent is such an emotional rollercoaster and there can be highs, but it is also emotionally, physically and financially draining.

‘You feel so conflicted as you find yourself so drained, yet with your parents or whoever you are caring for, you can often never do enough for them.

‘Often parents are pleading not to be put in a home, but often they don’t realise how much pressure that is putting on their children who are often older themselves by that point.

‘It is much harder than you can ever anticipate, and we need to talk more as a society about the reality of carenting – from funding care to the toll it can take looking after a parent with dementia in the small hours.

‘And we also need to better brace people who are in their 60s that the retirement you thought you were getting may now include caring for a 90-year-old – but it is great that there are now finally resources available to help guide them.’

Images: Louise Thompson and Jackie Gray 

More on Carers Week:

UK Care Week 2024: Five councils that are taking part

Carers Week: 60% of ‘hidden carers’ are struggling with their mental health

Emily Whitehouse
Writer and journalist for Newstart Magazine, Social Care Today and Air Quality News.


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