Survive as a single carer

By Catherine Francis

 ‘I consider it a privilege to look after my parents, but it’s relentless and I’m exhausted.

 ‘Everyone’s got an opinion on how to look after my aunt, but nobody actually rolls up their sleeves to help. Apparently that’s my job.

 ‘I adore my daughter but looking after a child with special needs is a 24/7 job. I can’t remember the last time I had a full night’s sleep or an hour to myself.’

 ‘I’m glad I never married. My family needs support at the moment and my dad is terminally ill, so I have time to spend with them without conflicting demands. My work and my family are currently my priorities.’

Looking after a child with long-term health problems is an incredibly difficult job under any circumstance, but for a single parent, the stress and pressure can be overwhelming. With no one to share the load, there’s little respite from round-the-clock caring responsibilities, and you may be faced with making major decisions about medical care or appropriate schooling alone, without a co-parent to discuss it with.

Single people without children also frequently find themselves shouldering a disproportionate amount of responsibility for parents and other family members. It’s often assumed that looking after a frail parent with dementia, or a sibling with physical or mental health problems, is the single person’s responsibility because “they have no children to look after” – regardless of the fact that they may work long hours and have no partner to share financial concerns and domestic chores.

Of course, most of us take on the role of caring for those we love very willingly, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you find yourself alone in a caring role, either for older family members or children with special needs or medical issues, there are some ways to help ease the strain. Here’s what other single Christian carers have to say…

‘Ask directly for help spreading the load’

It’s helpful if your wider family understands the pressure you’re under as a single person – without experiencing it themselves, they may have no real idea of what you’re dealing with. You may want to consider asking for a family meeting or sending a letter or email, explaining all your day-to-day responsibilities, the toll it takes on you physically and emotionally, and the impact on your work, finances, social life and mental health. If you ask directly for others to share the load, family members may be willing to play a bigger role and give you respite time. If you don’t feel able to ask yourself, your minister may be willing to talk to family members of your behalf, or mediate a family meeting.  

‘Once I explained to my three brothers and sisters how caring for our mum, who has dementia, was making me ill too, they realised they needed to help out. We now have a rota for the week, and we spread the load more fairly.’

‘Plug into carers’ organisations’

There are a number of excellent organisations that offer help, support and valuable information for caregivers. They can also connect you with other carers (in person or online – see below), keep you informed of what you’re entitled to, and assist you with getting benefits and practical support. Carer UK ( http://www.carersuk.org/ ) and Carers Trust (http://www.carersuk.org/ ) are a good place to start. Your GP may be able to direct you to other local groups or services.

My mum and I cared for my dad for three years before he lost his life to cancer (my sister lives hundreds of miles away with her own family). We had great support from our local hospice, which offers counselling, complementary therapies and group support for carers. Dad ended up dying at home, but I still love and support the hospice today.’

‘Get all the financial support you’re entitled to

Being a caregiver can have a huge impact on your finances, especially if you have to take time off work or give up your job altogether, so it’s important to claim all the financial benefits you’re entitled to, such as Carer’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Housing Benefit and Child Benefit. It’s best to contact your local benefits office sooner rather than later, as benefits won’t be backdated. Staff are not obliged to tell you about benefits you don’t know you’re entitled to, so visit https://www.carersuk.org/help-and-advice/financial-support/help-with-benefits for a full list of benefits and other useful information.

‘Talk, talk and talk some more’

Being responsible for the welfare of a vulnerable person, watching someone you love suffering, and facing the propect of either losing them or being a carer indefinitely, will all take their toll on you mentally and emotionally. You may feel you have no life of your own, and you’ve lost your identity. You may have no time or energy left for yourself. You may experience social isolation and depression. Talking through issues with someone outside the situation can help. This could be your pastor, a professional counsellor, a support group or just close friends – anyone who will listen without judgement and help you make sense of your feelings.

Social media can be helpful for staying in touch with friends, and chatting with others in your situation – try Carers UK Forum  Alzheimer’s Society Talking Point or Macmillan Carers Community or you can search online for one that fits your situation.

‘Don’t forget to look after yourself’

Taking time out can seem unrealistic when you’re looking after someone around the clock. However, if you can manage to carve out little pockets of time for yourself during the day when you can have a quiet cup of tea, read a few pages of a book, have a bath or spend some time in prayer, it will help to sustain you. Keeping healthy, eating well and taking some gentle exercise will give you energy and stamina, so you’re better able to care for your loved one. You can also talk to your GP and social services about respite care and drop-in centres that could allow you to take breaks. Visit NHS website pages for further information.

‘After my mum died, Dad moved in with me as he’s too frail to live alone. I love him, but he’s grumpy, difficult and demanding, and wants to spend every moment with me. I work full-time, but he insists I watch awful TV at ear-splitting volume with him all evening, and even follows me to the bathroom! I occasionally book a day off work but leave the house as normal and take myself somewhere nice for the day. My ‘secret days’ help to keep me sane.’

 ‘Maintain your church relationships’

An intense caring role can make it difficult or impossible to attend church regularly, but it’s helpful if you can maintain links with your church and not lose touch with your leader and friends in the congregation. Keep your minister informed about how things are going and don’t be afraid to ask them to visit so you can chat and receive communion and prayer. Inviting church members round for a cuppa so you can talk and pray together also helps to keep you connected. If it’s practical, you could offer to host a small group in your home so you can still enjoy fellowship without leaving your loved one unattended.

‘I lived with my mum for her five years of terminal bowel cancer. Watching someone you love suffering and then losing them is a pain like no other, but knowing I did my best for her is something I can hold onto. Naming the things we can be grateful for also helps. I’m now helping out with several other family members with physical and mental health problems. I’m stressed and exhausted, but I make a point of enjoying a relaxing bath with soothing oils several times a week. I also stay plugged into my church, where the teaching and communion help to sustain me, and I have kind and supportive friends.’

 ‘Press into God’

You may struggle to understand how God has allowed your situation. You may feel disillusioned by unanswered prayers and struggle with doubts and anger. That’s completely normal and nothing to feel guilty about. You can still bring your fears and feelings to God and ask him to draw close and give you the strength and inner peace you need.

‘My mum has been very ill for 30 years and I’ve been her carer all that time. Many times I’ve wanted to give up as it can be isolating, emotionally exhausting and frustrating. However, I love my mum dearly and we have a very close bond. Her faith inspires me and God has helped us so much. I don’t know how people get through it without faith. In many ways, I’m blessed to be my mum’s carer and try to see it as a privilege, as it’s taught me so much. To anyone in similar position, I say: hang in there. God is for us, not against us. Tell him exactly how you feel. He can take it. Try not to bottle it up. And be kind to yourself.’

With thanks to: Sarah, Lilian, Paola, Melanie, Lina and Deborah.

RELATED INFORMATION

For more tips on many aspects of coping as a caregiver, visit Mind website.

Church leaders, we have a page here to help you support single members of your congregation who are caring for children, parents or other relatives with long-term health problems.