Judy slept lightly, always on the alert for any sound of movement, or her mother’s hoarse voice. She rarely dared to relax or go beyond calling distance of the bed-ridden old lady.
Her mother could do very little for herself having had a stroke a year ago, that crippled the right-side of her body, from head to foot.
Her speech was slurred, she couldn’t eat normally, the food kept falling out of her lop-sided mouth. There was always a crease between her brows, straining to see properly, her vision becoming increasingly dim. Judy was like her mother’s remote-controlled limb having to do virtually every thing for the old lady from feeding her, keeping her clean and seeing to all her needs, big and small. She took her to the hospital for her appointments, out for drives or to the park to get some fresh air every Sunday, in her small car. The old lady had to be carried into her wheel chair, into the car, then out of the car, into the wheel chair again. This was the routine procedure, every time she took her mother out. Judy also prepared her meals and did all the house work besides caring for her crippled mother. At the end of the day, despite her exhaustion, the whole cycle would be repeated, day in and day out. Nobody else looked after Mother, since Judy was the only one living with Mother.
Judy lived on a small allowance contributed by her siblings who with their families lived in other parts of the country. At Christmas and other festive holidays, they would descend on the family home to visit Mother and enjoy a family celebration. At such times, Judy did all the preparation, the cooking, cleaning and decorating. It was an extremely busy time for her on top of caring for Mother.
Out of respect and compassion for Mother, Judy seldom grumbled at her lot of being Mother’s care-giver and housekeeper. She had no days off, couldn’t go on holiday without having to bring Mother along, and little time for herself. The only thing that vexed her was that she often became invisible and was complained about if her ‘performance’ was thought not up to others’ expectations. Her siblings and relatives or family friends would make unhelpful critical remarks about how she cared for Mother or would suggest pointedly that she change the way she did things even if she faced no problems in her well-planned and organized routine. That they were not caring for Mother or keeping the house 24/7 was what made their whinging unjust, and to some extent, cruel to Judy.
Family care-givers may identify with Judy’s experience, as the focus of ‘pity’ and consolation by others is usually, solely, the one being cared for. Care-givers are often forgotten persons, who, like domestic workers are taken for granted until they are absent. Family members who become care-givers, are in some respects, worse off than hired help, as they are expected to work out of filial piety, duty or basic ‘love’ for virtually no remuneration or any benefits due to domestic workers whose employers have obligations to observe. They have no legal existence as workers or hired help.
In the cold light of truth, they are akin to modern day home slaves. Some times, family care-givers do not receive any stipend or allowance, except for household expenses on which they have to survive, keep house and see to the needs of the person cared for, with little to cover their own personal necessities. They also lose out socially, as they are ‘tied’ to their role without any time or space to themselves or to socialize with their own friends.
Family care-givers are usually not seen as home-slaves due to family ties that take their compassion for granted and presume a duty on them to look after and give time to caring and seeing to the well-being and comfort of parents, or other close relatives. Sadly, their willingness to under-take this task can be exploited by other relatives who are too busy or unwilling to do this. People give a million excuses why they can’t or prefer not to undertake the care of an elderly, disabled or ailing relative.
The care-giving role usually falls to a wife, daughter, daughter-in-law or other female relative who is not officially working, is seen as available to do the job, or a single woman willing to give up her career to become the care-giver. This traditional patriarchal conservative view of woman’s place in the home has become an age old home-slave trap for many women.
It is now the 21st century, where women’s capacity for a larger role in society is a reality, it is time recognition was given to the expertise and contribution to society by family members who work in this informal and ‘hidden’ capacity. It is not an easy role to assume in awareness of the possibility of losing out socially and career-wise as time goes on. Moreover, a care-giver-cum-housekeeper must have excellent management skills, patience, energy, commonsense and vast practical knowledge about almost everything.