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Family and Carers: A Personal Story

By Valma James, Social Worker, Cygnet Hospital Harrow

One of the many uncertainties around the Covid-19 crisis is the long-term impact of the lockdown on the millions of people across the UK who are carers to people with a mental health condition. Looking after a loved one can be extremely stressful, and can impact on the physical, psychological and emotional health of the carer and affect their family relationships and employment opportunities. That’s why it’s important during this difficult time for carers to pay special attention to promoting their own health and wellbeing.

Here, Natalia Kazakova, discusses her personal story of being a carer to her teenage son and shares the essential things she’s learned about navigating its challenges, as well as the joyous times.

“I REALISED I was a carer only about three years ago when my gifted boy developed several mental health problems associated with autism. At the same time, I was caring for my mother in another country while also trying to balance a demanding career.

“As many carers will know, navigating the system to find the right support can be a challenge in itself. I was fortunate to find our local Mental Health Association, which guided me through the process, and resulted in a funded care plan for my boy away from my home. Letting go of my son in this way was such a difficult decision, and to this day I still fantasise about ways this could have been avoided.

“The truth is, however, that living in a specialist care placement, he has more freedom and flexibility, and is among people who are able to be more tolerant and accepting of his condition. Having that space between us has actually improved my relationship with my son. Of course, I haven’t stopped looking for solutions, and I have not always been happy with the available mental health treatments, but, on reflection, I have space to live my life, time to relax and take comfort in knowing that when he needs me, I can be there.

“One of the more difficult things is living with uncertainty about the future. Long-term planning is hard, and we have had to learn to manage plans that look no more than one month ahead. Booking any holiday or arranging to spend time away is crushing because I rely on our weekly visits to our son and I don’t like to miss anything.

“With regards to finances, our son was always our number one priority, but if we had been able to access better support early on, it would have made such a difference. We could have chosen a better school with less pupils in the class or considered educating him at home, and, when puberty struck, we could have benefited from support from a specialist psychologist. Before our son received money for his support, everything simply came out of our family budget.

“Our son opened a bank account early in life, as he often used to receive prize money for winning chess tournaments and was given cash, which he collected enthusiastically. Generally, he is thrifty and can count his money well, although sometimes his priorities are skewed, and he compulsively makes bad judgement purchases. He might spend a fortune on games, online purchases and succumb to scams of all kinds, for example, but not think about what he is going to buy in order to eat, or for clothes or trips out.

“I think that he would rather be in rags, hungry and in turmoil over buying a new toothbrush, then spend any money that might be used for that one flash decision moment. My duty as a carer is not to let this happen, no matter how free and romantic it may sound. I have to make sure he has money for a good dentist, for clothes and all possible gadgets that keep him feeling good and help his condition. Fortunately, this is also part of his care plan and the hospital are giving him the support he needs as well.

“I struggled to finish this blog as our journey will always be one that’s ‘in progress’, which is also one of the carer’s challenges. As mothers, when we look back at our decision to have children, we all sign up to giving away a large chunk of our time to this rewarding and demanding adventure. There are no certainties, and, inevitably, we will face conflicts of interest as we try to juggle our responsibilities. Being a carer, it is important to never lose hope and to focus on the original values and aspirations we had, improvising where necessary and seeking support where we can. This requires perseverance and I am happy to say that I met a few dedicated professionals and caring people along the way, who were able to share and understand what I was going through.”

Top Tips for Carers:

Our team at Cygnet Harrow Hospital have shared their top tips for carers for keeping healthy during the lockdown.

  • Maintain a good, healthy and nutritional diet
  • Ensure that you develop a good sleep pattern
  • Engage in meditation and relaxation
  • Communicate often and share your worries with a friend or relative.
  • If you have a loved one in a Cygnet hospital, you can stay in touch by phone, video call apps (like facetime/zoom/WhatsApp), and always contact us if you have any concerns
  • Take time for yourself through a hobby or activity
  • Listen to some great music
  • Go for a walk
  • Whatever you do, don’t think that you are alone!

If you have any tips you would like to share in how you keep and promote your health and wellbeing, do share with us.

Your Health Matters

During this difficult time, you need to pay attention to prioritising your health and wellbeing too. We know that worry, isolation and anxiety can impact on one’s emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual health.

For many, Coronavirus will have impacted on the support you can give to your relative, which may cause you additional worry. You may also receive more frequent calls than you normally get from your loved one because they too are anxious about not being able to see you. We understand this and the importance of keeping in touch. Please do not hesitate to contact your relative via the service or ward phone, or directly if your relative has access to their own phone.

Equally, you can call us too. We are here to help and support you as well.

We want to thank all our families, carers, relatives and friends for their support at this time and have written a dedicated message to you all.

About the author

Valma James is a qualified Registered Nurse and Social Worker with over thirty years experience in the health and social care sector.

Based at Cygnet Hospital Harrow, Valma is committed to continually improving service quality and is particularly interested in supporting the lives of informal carers who care for children and adults with mental health challenges. She is passionate about identifying best practice solutions and developing appropriate services that will support carers in their caring role. Valma has been working and promoting the needs of carers for over 15 years and has undertaken research about the impact of caring on a carer’s health. She herself was a carer for her mother and father.

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