How one identifies themselves from day-to-day has become such an integral piece of social understanding. From what you do, to your gender, what you wear, who you socialise with, your hobbies, your career, your sexuality, the list is endless. But for some people, one overarching element overshadows all other elements, and this is often the case for those who identify as a ‘carer’.
Within carer communities and support networks there is often conversation about supporting carers at the end of their caring journey by helping them “find their identity” once their caring responsibilities have concluded. I think that’s too late. What about cultivating who they are amidst their care?
As a carer, I’m often busy finding things for my dad to do or be involved in so that he can maintain his sense of independence and his identity. Amidst safeguarding his identity, it’s easy to forget about the importance of maintaining my own identity and to no longer concern myself with who I am. I’ve found that this extends even beyond my own life choices and into the way people view me.
During the Carer Knowledge Exchange’s first formal Research Incubator Event in May 2022, Sebastian Caruso spoke to the impact his caring role had on his identity. Firstly, the fact that his former identity as a partner had been swiftly replaced by his identity as a carer, completely changing the dynamic of his relationship. This in itself is a huge shift in identity, but he also explained how other elements of his identity had been taken away in this transition from partner to carer. For example, his approach to his work, the way he interacted or socialised, and what struck me the most – the way in which people interacted with him.
Sebastian shared that most of his family, friends and acquaintances now first ask him about his partner Jeff in any given scenario, rarely thinking to ask how he is. In these interactions, he is stripped of his own sense of self, his needs eclipsed by those of his partner.
'The biggest cost is, that I think I have lost my identity over the last five years and how other people see me. I see people in the shopping centre, they’ll immediately go to “how’s Jeff?”, rather than “how are you?”. The conversation is immediately about him, I take a back seat.’
- Sebastian Caruso
When Sebastian shared this, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own life and realised this was a common occurrence for me too. It’s easy to lose your identity if other people begin to see you solely as a caretaker as well.
As an individual, you cannot control how others act, however, you do have the capacity to take positive action steps towards discovering your individuality within your caring role. I have been lucky in my caring journey to maintain many aspects of my own identity and have found ways to incorporate this into my care.
I’m a Yoga teacher, which is a big part of my identity professionally and personally. The practice of Yoga has given me the capacity to separate myself and my care responsibilities. It has given me an outlet to process the transition from daughter to carer and the day-to-day struggles of providing informal care. Beyond this, I have friendships that have kept me anchored in my own life, so that I don’t become too absorbed in the caring role. These friends ensure I am participating in activities that I enjoy beyond work and care, such as hiking, bouldering, and spending quality time with people I love.
If we prioritise carers’ identity throughout their care journey, then it’s possible that they won’t feel as abandoned when that journey comes to an end. It’s easy to find a purpose in caring, it’s a selfless act, something that people view as valuable or altruistic, which makes it easy to lean on this part of yourself and forget the rest.
However, when your own identity is abandoned, because it is deemed less valuable than your role as a carer, when you eventually transition out of that caring role, it may make you feel as if you aren’t enough. The person you are caring for does not define you. You are more than that and you are allowed to be more than that. It’s not selfish to cultivate your own life, interests, and friendships beyond your caring. I used to think that doing anything without my dad was unfair to him, but now I realise that having my own life beyond him ensures I am showing up and being my best when I am with him.
When the day comes, that I no longer need to care for him, there will be more space in my life, which will perhaps be difficult to fill, or perhaps will make me feel guilty. However, if I’m taking steps now to have a fulfilled life beyond my caring role, when that sad day comes, I will have a life to fall back on that is fulfilling in a new way.
Where to from here?
There have been moments where my life has completely revolved around my care and work, and I have had to hold myself accountable to maintain my identity. If you are reading this and have felt a similar loss in identity, here are a few tips that I’ve found useful to help bring yourself back into your own individuality:
Can you find an hour a week to dedicate solely to yourself? This could be time to read a book, drink a cup of tea in silence, meditate, watch reality TV, whatever it is that allows you to take time out for yourself, without guilt. Perhaps schedule this in with a support worker or family member, so you know the time will be uninterrupted.
What is it that you used to do for fun before your caring responsibilities? Can you re-invigorate that hobby or activity?
Reach out to a friend, go for a coffee, and ask if you can spend that time talking about anything but being a carer.
Find five to ten minutes every day to take care of you, whatever that looks like for you, and to recognise how amazing you are, beyond your caring responsibilities.
Take a moment to journal when you’re feeling disconnected to yourself. Reflect on what you valued as a part of your identity before your caring journey, and what will be important to you after your caring journey. Can you incorporate that into your life now?
If you or someone you are with is in immediate danger, please call 000. If you feel upset or are in distress, you can contact Lifeline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by phoning 13 11 14 or texting 0477 13 11 14.