Ireland’s invisible family carers
4 MIN READ
‘There are days when I leave mummy’s in tears and there are days when I leave her and I’m laughing,’ Joanne Rafferty says.
‘Being a carer is very demanding as well as being very rewarding. ‘
One morning, back in November 2015, Joanne’s mother, Kathleen, suffered a stroke.
An ambulance took her to hospital but unfortunately it was too late for them to reverse the damage.
‘All our lives were turned upside down in an instant,’ Joanne says.
Cared for in her own home
After her rehabilitation, Kathleen got some strength back in her left hand and her speech improved but she was confined to a wheelchair.
She pleaded not to be put into a care home but, instead, return to her own home and a care package was put in place to help her do this.
‘We took her back to her home at Christmas,’ Joanne says.
Fortunately, Kathleen lives less than half a mile away from Joanne, who works as Bank of Ireland branch manager in Portadown and less than a mile from Joanne’s three sisters and her brother.
Initially, the family’s overwhelming thoughts were of relief but soon the more sobering thought of this new life and new routine hit home to all.
Taking over all the caring responsibilities after Covid-19
‘For the past 5 years, until Covid-19, Ann’s home care (a local care provider) have provided us with fantastic support, visiting mum 4 times a day to wash, dress and help toilet her,’ Joanne says.
However, due to Covid-19, the family had to make the tough decision to cancel the home care in order to protect Kathleen from potentially picking up the virus.
Since then, Joanne and her siblings, who were already caring for Kathleen in her home, night and day, have had to establish a new rota for supporting her.
Joanne will pop over to Kathleen’s bungalow at 7pm, for example, and stay there until the following morning when one of her siblings will take over so Joanne can go to work.
The ability to work from home during the pandemic has had its benefits as, for the moment, it enables Joanne to spend more time at her mother’s home than she previously could.
‘Tremendously rewarding’ but ‘intense emotions’
‘Caring for a parent who is disabled after a stroke can be tremendously rewarding,’ Joanne says, ‘and I do feel closer to mum but it is also a time when you experience intense emotions.’
Joanne and her husband Frankie have 3 children – Jordan, 23, is at university, Matthew, 21, also works in financial services and Keely Mae, 15, is at school (although not right now, of course, because of the virus).
‘Keeley Mae, who was 10 when granny had her stroke, was heavily into her football and camogie and I’ve missed so many of her sporting matches,’ Joanne says.
Even before the pandemic, Joanne was spending 4 nights a week sleeping over at Kathleen’s house and she says she feels guilty about not being there for Jordan, Matthew and Keeley Mae.
Dealing with the guilt
Joanne’s eldest, Jordan, was stayed in Kathleen’s house the night before she woke up with her stroke.
‘It took him a long time to settle himself that he didn’t miss any signs of the stroke before he broke down telling me he thought it was his fault,’ Joanne says.
Matthew was the first to get to his granny the morning of her stroke after she pressed her emergency buzzer.
‘The operator called my house,’ Joanne explains, ‘but I was already away to work and Matthew went to her house and lay on the bed with her until the ambulance arrived.‘
‘I do worry about the emotional impact this has had on my own children.’
Trying to fit everything into the day
Devoting so much time to care for her mum means that Joanne has to cram everything else – homework, university courses, career, social life – into the remaining few hours a day.
‘Sometimes I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders,’ she says.
Occasionally, she feels overwhelmed and wonders why the bulk of the care – she is the youngest of Kathleen’s 4 children – is left to her but she is grateful for the family members that support her.
And sometimes she cannot help feel sadness at the loss of her mother as she was before.
‘For 20 years, she used to make my wee family their dinner. She was my sounding board, my safe place, and now she sits a mere shadow of herself in her chair getting confused with a touch of dementia asking me ‘which one are you’ and ‘what time is it?’ every hour,’ she says.
Confidential support and assistance
Joanne used to work at a branch an hour and half’s commute from her home but she managed to get transferred to Portadown so she could help look after her mother.
Like many family carers, she uses her annual leave to care for Kathleen and the family go without foreign holidays choosing instead to take granny to Rossnowlagh beach for a family holiday in the summer.
She says she has used the free Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), a confidential support service provided to employees and their families for personal and work-related issues, when she has felt the need.
‘I have used the fantastic EAP service to help me through the really difficult patches. You just pick up the phone and they can help you by providing a wee coping mechanism. I have done it rarely but it helps when things get really low.’
Joanne also says that she is blessed with a caring boss and a dear friend, Geraldine O’Hagan.
‘I can’t express how much this means to me,’ she says. ‘Knowing I can work flexibly and take an hour when I need to run late or leave early and make it up later.’
‘Be thankful for what you have not what you’re giving up’
But, she says, her real life line is her husband Frankie.
‘We have been together 32 years and have developed a telepathic way of talking,’ she says.
‘He knows when I need a shoulder to cry on or just a hug or an argument, a scream or a large glass of wine.’
She enjoys watching her children show love, compassion, and selfless devotion, to their granny, daily.
‘Their chats and special moments spent with their granny Kate will live with them forever and make them stronger people – I have no doubt,’ she says.
I maybe don’t count those blessings enough,’ she admits.
‘Sometimes you feel so immersed in the day to day grind that you forget to breathe and be thankful for what you have, not for what you are giving up.’
But when she gives you a kiss before bed and says ‘I don’t know what I would do without you’, all the stress lifts from your shoulders for a few moments and we both enjoy the moment.’
The other day, she says, Kathleen was awake and up at 5am and after Joanne helped get her washed and dressed and put her make-up on, Kathleen declared, ‘all dressed up and nowhere to go.’
Find out more
Family Carers Ireland have developed a bespoke support programme – ‘Caring Employers’ – to provide guidance and assistance for companies to appropriately support their employees who also have a family caring role. Bank of Ireland is giving access to the programme and the full range of support it offers to all its employees who might wish to use it.
Family Carers Ireland provides a range of services and supports for family carers through its 22 support centres nationwide and through a National Freephone Careline 1800 240 724. For more information please visit www.familycarers.ie