I always knew photography was powerful. It always has the potential to see what other’s couldn’t, what I couldn’t even. It's a tool to shine a light on issues locally, nationally and internationally that may otherwise be left in the dark. This blog is about one of those issues within our local borough (London Borough of Hounslow), our amazing unpaid carers. The quiet selfless people that live and work among us, and our awakening to their strength and resilience.
My husband Jim and I own Booths together. We are local photographers (based in Bedfont) and I have lived in the borough my entire life. So, when we had a request from our local council for a photographer to capture some portraits of unpaid carers in the area, we jumped at the chance to be involved. To actually get out into the community and finally meet some people after Covid and lockdowns. The project sounded simple but exciting: to capture some candid photos of a couple of carers in the area, to take some portraits and to meet the people they cared for and take a photo if they felt comfortable. Jim and I packed our camera gear and out we headed for the day.
I was told in the borough there were over 22,000 carers, people who provide daily support to a loved one. But what we didn’t realise was the extent and level of care that is required from some people, and the challenges and triumphs that come with it. But then I got to meet two people, Carlos and Sefali, and capture their lives as carers. This is their stories, and our experience.
“You don’t know you’re going to be a carer, there isn’t ever a plan to be one”
Carlos became a carer four years ago when his mother suffered a heart attack, which left her suffering from vascular/muscular dementia and a lack of mobility. On a daily basis Carlos has to assist his mother to remember who her carer is, prepare medication, assist with daily movement and dressing. During the night she also requires assistance and is up around 4 times per night.
“It feels like a merry-go-round being a carer; days, weeks, months pass you by and you don't have any time to call anyone for help because you're so busy all the time.”
I could tell that Carlos is a kind man when I looked at him, but the exhaustion was apparent on his face. He apologised for looking so tired, but we wanted to apologise for taking up his time. Through his words you could tell that the last 14 months had beaten him down, and the pressures of Covid-19 had limited the support and medical care for his mother and himself. We stood in the hallway as he explained how nurses were unable to come round to take bloods as required, and that they had felt completely alone over the past year.
During the pandemic, Carlos has been able to meet other carers via some of the borough’s services including IAPT, SIDS and dementia services, which he praised some of the great people involved who have supported him. But it’s been difficult for him to find the time to attend virtual meetings. Carlos also works full time as a University lecturer.
I had mentioned that I teach photography for Hounslow Adult Education Centre, and his face lit up as he told me that he teaches as well. Carlos got in to teaching when a friend mentioned a position open and that they were looking for a professional in his area of expertise. You can sense the passion from Carlos for his students and his work. This got me thinking about who Carlos was outside of being a carer. It doesn’t sound like he has much time to be himself with all of his responsibilities, he talked about having 2 hours off a week in which he goes for walks over at Chiswick park. I don’t think we were emotionally ready for the visit to Carlos and his mum, because we, like so many, didn’t understand the challenges that families face when a loved one needs full time support.
We felt sombre that afternoon as we contemplated and discussed how many people were in the same position as Carlos before seeking help and didn’t even know it. How many people didn’t know what services were available? And thought that if we were in his position, would we know where to begin?
We know a little about the Hounslow IAPT services, and have both accessed their services. Here is a little bit about IAPT from their website:
“IAPT stands for improving access to psychological therapies. We offer talking therapies for people over 18 who have a GP in the London Borough of Hounslow.
We help you with common problems like stress, anxiety and depression. It could be that you’re feeling low, having trouble sleeping, or feeling frightened. These are all things that we can help with.
Hounslow IAPT offers Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) but also works in partnership with a counselling service.”
I first accessed these services in 2014, when I was diagnosed with OCD. This had been a problem for me, with my earliest memories of compulsions from the age of 6, but I had never spoken about it or thought about getting help. It wasn’t until Jim asked me if I wanted to seek some help, and I did. I saw my GP first, who then referred me to the IAPT services for cognitive behavioural therapy for OCD. Since that visit I have accessed the services through self-referral on two further occasions and am so grateful for the incredible support. Jim too has had support from IAPT, first accessing the service in 2016 for support for lifelong clinical depression. Jim moved in to the borough in 2015 and says that the IAPT process was the smoothest service than he had ever experienced. We both feel so lucky to live in a borough that has such a fantastic focus on mental health, and a service that is easy to access for everyone.
The borough provides a number of services, including a carers assessment to help determine what support is available for you from the local council. Here’s a little bit about carers assessment from their website:
“A carers assessment will help the council to understand the physical, emotional and practical impact that caring has on your life. The level of support you will receive from the council will depend on a number of factors, but even if you cannot get support directly from the council, we will always give you information and advice tailored to your circumstances and let you know if there are any other services which may be able to help you.
The aim of the assessment is to help us understand you and your needs better. For example, it will help us find out whether you are able and willing to carry on caring, whether you want to work or what you would like to do in any spare time you may have.”
“Taking a carers assessment alerts people to your problems and allows people to reach out and help you. When you go through an ordeal such as this that can be so mentally and physically draining, it allows you to see behind the surface of other people and reach out to them.”
After the visit to meet Carlos and his mum and a quick stop at home for some lunch, it was over to Sefali to meet her and her family.
Sefali is a yoga teacher based in Heston. She has been a carer for 15 years, but has been tending to her parents needs since she was 10. She took us inside and introduced us to her mum, dad and some other family members living in the home and also next door. Sefali’s parents are both in need of full-time care, and her duties include preparing food and medication, washing and dressing and helping both of her parents with daily exercises including yoga and walking. Her daily routine is full, and you can see she has had to adapt her life around the needs of her parents, with every minute of the day planned to ensure nothing is missed.
Sefali showed us into her yoga studio, an incredible space, adapted for virtual classes and live streams during the pandemic. Her mum joined to show us her activity books. Sefali ensures her parents always have some stimuli in the form of activities, books, puzzles and exercise. We went outside into a gorgeous zen garden. As we took some photos of Sefali, we asked about her journey in yoga. Jim has recently started yoga; he was interested in hearing about Sefali’s studio and how this practice has helped her. She joked with us that she had become a ‘peace junkie’. She had found feelings of peace and control over her emotions, even on the most stressful of days. Her attitude was inspiring, and we were in awe of her resilience.
“It’s self-care so I can give care, because the negativity of care can sometimes be daunting, such as causing me to take what my mother might say personally. Yoga has helped me form a healthy objectivity so I can provide proper care for her.”
Within her interview with the council, Sefali had mentioned her access to the carers short break service. Here’s a little bit about the short break service from the website:
“This service offers carers the opportunity to have a short break from their caring role, safe in the knowledge that their loved one is being cared for by someone with appropriate skills, training and expertise.
Carers can use this time to access support for themselves or to catch up with friends and family to maintain their own relationships and interests.”
“It's been a lifesaver. I wouldn't be able to work or teach yoga without it. It gives me a structured break from the round-the-clock attention my parents need. Carer’s break has allowed me to appreciate the distinction between what caring duties are and what simply looking after your parents is.”
Once again, we were astounded by the services available, but returned to a phrase that I often find myself saying:
‘You don’t know, what you don’t know’
How do people who are caring for loved ones know the extent of their circumstances? How do these carers find the support they need? How will they know where to look? What even is available?
Meeting Carlos and Sefali has opened our eyes to the people in our borough that juggle so much everyday to keep their loved ones at home, healthy and happy, at any cost to their own mental and physical health. This group of unsung heroes live and work all around us and we may never know them, they may never have the time to reach out.
I don’t know the answers to all the questions that have come from this experience, but I do know that we will be more aware and more vigilant of who may need help, and educate ourselves on where to direct them. While services exist, they do need help from everyone to raise awareness and allow more people gain access to life changing support.
June 7th-13th is national carers week
“Carers Week is an annual campaign to raise awareness of caring, highlight the challenges unpaid carers face and recognise the contribution they make to families and communities throughout the UK. It also helps people who don't think of themselves as having caring responsibilities to identify as carers and access much-needed support.
This year we are coming together to Make Caring Visible and Valued.” - carersweek.org
Find more information about what's going on this carers week in the borough here www.careplace.org.uk
Look out for our photos of Carlos and Sefali around the borough this June.
Rachel & Jim