Carers do not always recognise the qualities, such as patience, resilience and organisation that they bring to their roles, says Dr Lindsay Hewitt
Anyone can become a carer at any time. Three in every five people will be carers at some point in their lives. There are estimated to be over 650,000 unpaid carers in Scotland providing care and support to family members, other relatives, partners, friends and neighbours of any age who are affected by physical or mental illness.
Caring can often continue even if the cared for person moves into a care home or other residential setting. Carers can be of any age and come from any culture or community.
Carers are entitled to, and should be enabled to have, a life outside of caring. The Scottish Government Carers Strategy sets out the key actions required to support people who have a carer’s responsibility to manage those responsibilities with confidence and in good health.
Recommendation 10 of the Scottish Government’s Getting it Right for Young Carers states that colleges and universities need to be alert and sensitive to the needs and issues confronting this group of hidden carers.
Positive new developments include the Scottish Funding Council funding for the College Development Network, to raise awareness of carers and their support needs. There are expressed hopes for a joined-up approach to supporting carers, including work with the Higher Education sector.
Evidence from recent studies by the National Union of Students and national carers organisations suggests that many carers want to participate in learning and training opportunities but often face real difficulties in doing so.
It is therefore important that the education sector recognises the challenges, pressures and difficulties carers face and understands that flexibility is important to allow students to fit studies around other demands.
We need to work together and with carers organisations to raise awareness amongst carers of the learning opportunities and support available to them.
Carers tell us that they have a range of learning needs and varied motivations for study. At some points an immediate priority might be exploring a health-related condition relevant to the person being cared for.
Or it might be looking to draw on knowledge and skills gained in a caring role; or how to resume studies put on hold, or help to get back into employment; or simply to ring-fence some “me time”, to try out something new and completely different.
For example, Naomi is a single parent and a carer. She left school at 15 with no qualifications and, before having her daughter, worked in call centres.
Her daughter, who has just started school, is visually impaired. Caring for her little girl has changed Naomi’s ambitions; she is now studying health and social care with The Open University, with the long-term plan to become a social worker.
Alongside her studies and her caring role, she is a children’s panel member and has recently taken up voluntary work with kids@risk.
The flexibility that the OU offered enabled Naomi to combine study with her caring role, and the voluntary work that was equally important in terms of achieving her ultimate goal.
Carers organisations tell us, and we know from our own students, that carers do not always recognise the skills and qualities – such as patience, resilience, organisational skills and time management – developed in their caring role.
Reflection can help carers recognise and appreciate the skills, abilities and qualities they often overlook and can help them review their decision-making and/or motivations. The OU Reflection Toolkit is a generic online resource freely available on the OpenLearn website, which contains a mixture of personal reflection and ideas about how we learn from reflection.
Carers organisations were keen to have a bespoke version of the resource which featured the diverse caring roles of carers, including young adults. So to celebrate Carers Week, The Open University in Scotland, together with Scottish Young Carers Services Alliance, this week launched Caring Counts: a self-reflection and planning course at a Symposium, Caring Roles: Learning Lives, in Glasgow on Monday.
The free online course is for carers of any age and at any stage in their life.
It is designed to help carers gain a clearer understanding of who they are, identify their personal qualities and to start to recognise the range of skills and abilities they have developed from personal experiences whilst caring.
We hope that the course will go some way to helping carers not only better recognise the skills and qualities they have developed through caring, but bring greater confidence to enable them to participate in learning and training opportunities.
• Dr Lindsay Hewitt is Learning and Teaching Co-ordinator at The Open University in Scotland