Greg Smith is an unpaid family carer who began caring in his early 20’s. He runs the website “Men Care Too”, a page for male carers to keep up to date with news, resources and information. This week for Men’s Health Week, he shares some key words of advice for other blokes in caring roles and the importance of conversation.
If I was to give my younger self some advice for life it would be to remember 3 simple things:
- Inform yourself
- Make connections
- And stay active
This has helped me keep on track and balanced during some difficult times. All 3 form a reminder to me although there are times where I feel alone or lost, there is always somewhere, someone or something to turn to that could help get me through.
A bit about me
A big turning point in my life came over 10 years ago when my parents separated and I started to spend more time helping mum with things around the home. Light on experience to begin with, I started to get really good at cleaning, washing clothes, preparing meals and keeping an eye on medications.
Mum lives with several chronic medical conditions and age-related health challenges. Spinal canal stenosis, a degenerative disorder causes her the most difficulty, limiting her mobility and causing back and leg pain. With her busy social schedule, and finding it difficult to move around without help, I also started taking mum out for appointments, shopping and to spend time with her friends.
Leading up to my parent’s separation, the previous 10 years had been challenging for our family with what seemed like a continual run of obstacles. A rare cancer diagnosis, multiple mental health issues, surgeries and hospital stays all meant that life was never smooth in our family home.
When I think back over those years now, I believe I did what I could and helped out where I thought I was of use. I didn’t understand the things that were happening or how they were changing our family.
I didn’t talk with mates or anyone else in my life about how things within the family were affecting me.
I spent a fair bit of my spare time drinking and making other poor life choices. It was my way of coping with what was going on at that time, in hindsight, it was likely my way to avoid the reality of things I didn’t understand.
If there is anything I would change from that time it would be to ask more questions about what was happening, to learn more about what these challenges were and probably the most important thing that I would do differently is talk with others. Even though my family or mates couldn’t make the problems go away, we would at least have had a chance to understand each other a little better.
After some time spent trying to juggle work and study along with helping mum as much as I could it became clear that something had to give and without any hesitation, I left work and put my studies on hold in an attempt to make mum’s life a little easier.
Around this same time, I started to think more about how my drinking and other poor behaviours could impact on how I was able to help mum. Looking back I believe that the shift in responsibility I felt to helping mum at the time is what put me on a better path in life.
Acknowledging my role as a carer
Along with that responsibility was acknowledging and accepting that my life was vastly different to other blokes in my age group with many forging a career and starting families whilst I was taking mum to see specialists and provide pain relief by massaging her legs.
“What do you do for work?” is one of the most common questions men ask one another when initially meeting and for a long time I struggled with the answer.
My “work” is difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t been in the same situation of providing care and support to someone else. That question also made me think about my worth and place in society, I know mum values what I do, yet even though more than a million other Aussie blokes care for a family member or friend it’s rare to see the value of this unpaid and largely hidden work recognised in any significant way.
I think one of the main reasons for this is that as a society we focus on the person who is unwell or lives with a disability, and rightfully so. A consequence of this way of thinking is that the attention and effort to provide care and support to those in need is so concentrated on them. Family and friends who provide the care and support are often overlooked and neglect their own physical and social needs.
How I stay physically and mentally healthy
That is why I am now trying to follow my own advice as often as I can so that I am healthy, physically and mentally to be the best support I can be for mum.
Inform yourself, ask questions of healthcare professionals to better understand a condition or illness and learn what services are available if I get stuck and need a hand. Getting connected for me means being part of the community, working on social connections through volunteering, sport or activity groups. During Men’s Health Week probably one of the most important things I aim to do is to stay active. Walking, tennis, weights and other simple fun activities are some things I do to help me physically and it is well known that regular exercise is also good for your mental wellbeing.
As a bloke my response has usually been “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine”.
Most of the time that’s true and I’m happy to simply do what I need to do to make mum’s life a little happier or easier. Sometimes it does get a bit hard, seeing someone you love in pain and not being able to fix it is a horrible, upsetting feeling, whilst talking about that with someone else won’t change things, it does help to know that someone has taken the time to listen.
When I talk about caring for mum with other blokes there is always at least one other guy who has been in similar shoes, who understands what I am saying and that sense of connection and understanding helps remind me that whilst my life is different to many other blokes, I’m not alone in what I’m doing.
If more of us share our stories, maybe the informal, unpaid “work” carers do will be more highly valued and appreciated by society.