‘Carer’ is a label that risk loosening the bonds of kith and kin | Indu Khurana

By calling family members carers, we risk turning love and responsibility into a transaction, without adequately supporting or rewarding those who do it

What happens to the relationship between two people when one starts being called “carer” of the other? What does such labelling do to the balance of power between the two individuals who were once “mother and daughter”, “father and son”, or “brother and sister”, but now are “mother and carer” or indeed “brother and carer”? Are we on the brink of calling mothers and fathers “carers” too? It feels as though a quality of the impersonal has been introduced between people who were previously kith and kin.

People caring for family members may or may not receive a “carer’s allowance” to aid them, and may be doing this caring work in addition to or instead of other work – or perhaps during their retirement, as with grandparents who become kinship foster carers – but they are taking care of another family member not for financial gain but because of that pre-existing relationship and from a sense of duty or love.

A particular set of assumptions is attached to the term carer, including that it is a paid role – a job. When we start to use the same term to describe someone who is looking after a family member, as we use to describe those working in trained and salaried posts (as care workers), we muddy the waters that should separate paid work from family life.

I believe this expansion of the definition of the term carer is neither useful nor accurate, and risks turning emotional ties into transactions. Family relationships seem already to have eroded in some sections of society over the last few decades, or at least to have become more distant. Partly this is due to the greater geographical distance that exist between family members, and there are other reasons. But if everyone can become a carer for their closest (and not so close) relatives, then is every other category of relationship soon to become extinct? Does this kind of labelling not itself contribute to that breakdown?

While I appreciate that the growing group of people who spend significant time and effort looking after others at home needs a reference tag, can we not stay with the idea that “my son is looking after me and gets a caring benefit or attends a caring support group”, rather than labelling him with the noun carer? By using the term carer in such a ubiquitous manner, I fear that our thinking about family may be taking a turn towards the materialistic, capitalistic ideology of keeping account.

The government and charities say that people who look after others need support, and poverty is often cited as a result of being a carer. But surely any hardship is not the result of the act of caring but more from a lack of wider family support, from the breakdown in networks and community? Charities provide support for carers who may themselves get ill, or for those seeking to rebuild a life after their caring duties are finished, such as following a bereavement. One must ask once more: where is the backup from friends, neighbours, relatives?

In previous generations, as now, women did the bulk of caring work. Given that we are living longer these days and exhibiting more illnesses in later life, but the fact that we have moved towards a situation in which charities or local authorities are expected to fulfil this role is surely proof of our unwillingness to take care of one another.

I know from observation and personal experience that there are still some cultures within the UK where the wider network pulls together to care for its older or ill members: Asian families, for example, are widely recognised for their greater willingness to shoulder these kinds of responsibilities. Their hearts may not spring with joy at this task, but they find motivation in gratitude and respect.

Unless we start to rebuild those bonds, putting the “other” alongside rather than behind the “self”, we are indeed going to have a greater workforce of carers whose heart isn’t in the role. This can only lead to a society of lonely individuals. For where there is no love, there is no growth.


Indu Khurana

The GuardianTramp

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