Caring: A Family Affair
Caring: A Family Affair

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Caring: A Family Affair

1 Caring: a family affair

Dream parents

Mummy would love me, daddy would too,

We'd go out on picnics or off to the zoo,

We would play in the park and feed the birds,

Listen to their songs and imagine their words.

My life would be full of joy and laughter,

All because they cared, my mother and father,

Never would I feel all cold and alone,

Knowing that I could always go home.

They would teach me to care and always to share,

And never to forget that they will always be there.

Love is eternal, it's my life long dream

Thank you for this, you're my king and my queen.

(Anastasia Lee-Harmony, 1996)

It may seem odd to start with a poem, but it's there as a reminder that ideas about care have deep emotional roots, and that those deep emotional roots are closely associated with ideas about families and what they should be like. In fact, the reality of Anastasia Lee-Harmony's own experience of family care is very different from that offered by the idealised ‘dream parents’ in the poem.

We all have some personal knowledge of care. Much of that knowledge comes from experience in families. Babies do not survive unless someone gives them at least a minimum of care. Most people also know what it is like to care for others – as a parent, a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a partner. Being cared for, or giving care, is as near as you can come to finding a universal experience. For almost everyone their first experience of being cared for is in the family, as an infant in the arms of a mother or a mother substitute. Families are the starting point for care. You might even go as far as to say that families exist in order to provide care. And many ideas about what care is or should be come from experiences of families, or beliefs about what families ought to be and how they should behave. Lee-Harmony's poem is an example.

In the main, society is organised as if the need for care is exceptional, exclusive to the very young, the very old, and adults who are ill or have a mental or physical impairment. Care is needed when we cannot function in daily life without the practical help of others. Babies need the fairly constant attention of an adult until they learn to eat, move around independently, follow ‘rules’ of day-to-day behaviour. At the other end of life also, as people cope with declining health, limited physical mobility and sometimes degeneration of mental capacities, help with daily living is needed. Most adults, however, are usually seen to need ‘care’ only if they are unusual in some way – if they experience illness, disease, or physical or mental impairments.

Figure 1
Care is needed at all stages of life.

Yet most people, at all stages of life, need some kind of care – emotional support, advice, having their washing done, their food shopped for and cooked, their feet massaged, their bath run. This need for care is not usually met by any kind of specialist services. It is supplied by family, friends, lovers, workmates, neighbours. Take health care, for example. We usually think of health care as being supplied by paid professionals – doctors, nurses, chemists and the like. But in a book about women, health and the family, Hilary Graham argues that:

For most of us it is families who meet our health needs in childhood; for warmth and shelter, for love and comfort. Families, too, serve as our first and most significant health teachers. In adulthood, most people create new families (often more than one) to support them ‘in sickness and in health’. In old age, it is our family again who cares most and does most for us.

(Graham, 1984, p. 17)

This course makes care in the family its focus because the overwhelming majority of care, including health care, is supplied in families, much of it in private, much of it unnoticed and unremarked upon. However, in the world of health and social care, that kind of care – all the work behind the scenes entailed in bringing up healthy children or maintaining adults – is not of interest until something goes wrong: the baby ‘fails to thrive’, the young child has ‘special needs’, the teenager becomes a drug addict, the parent ‘can't cope’. So, although all the private activity is immensely important, it is not our main focus. Our focus is on those occasions when that privately supplied care is not enough, when the private care world of the family meets the public world of official statistics, care agencies and paid workers. The effect is to make ‘care’, that everyday word, into an official term, and to make the people who deliver that care in families into semi-official beings – ‘informal carers’.

The idea that families do and should provide care sounds straightforward. But behind this apparently simple idea there are a number of unstated questions and some quite contentious political issues. Here are some of the questions we will be addressing in this course.

Core questions

  1. Who are the carers within families?

  2. What do we mean by the word ‘care’?

  3. What demands do care relationships place on people and when should the state play a part?

  4. How do families and caring fit together?

We approach these questions through a case study. Case studies are a way of focusing on situations in detail and many are about people's lives.

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