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What is family caregiving? A messy term we need to politicise

This is not a straightforward question with an easier answer. If we first start with the word caregiving, what do we mean by it? There is the word caregiver, a term used for anyone providing care. There is the term care worker, a person providing care in a paid role. In everyday language a carer can be considered both a person providing care to a family member (a person with whom they may have an affeictive relationships with such as a friend or neighbour) but it can also mean a person who is getting paid for caring. We distinguish between the two when we say ‘a paid care worker, working in the family home setting.’ In this way we are thinking about who is doing the care work and whether it is renumerated. The distinction between unpaid and paid carework is emphasised, but less attention is paid to how and when we use these terms and when these terms connect. When we speak about the care work we do in looking after an older family member, do we refer to it as care or work? How do unpaid family carers sustain a livelihood and how is their work valued? If a caregiver is a family member and their position is paid, do we then refer to our cousin in the house as a ‘paid care worker, working in the family home’. Moreover the paid care worker, who is a family member, might get paid, either in cash or kind, or they might not get paid, does that change what term we use and how we think about family care?

We connect this to what activities are considered family care, i.e. what is included in family caregiving tasks and what is excluded? Is it the practical task of caring for an older person or is it caring about them and paying for transport to go to hospital for a check up? Everyday we make moral judgements about family caregivers who provide “good care” and those that neglect their older parents. But do we consider the conditions that shape peoples’ choices and ability to engage in family care?  A family member might recognise a care need, but they may be unable to practically carry out care for a range of reasons such as employment, distance, personal or health reasons etc. If they organise care, and pay someone to care for an older person, are their actions and intentions considered carework, and family carework? What are the boundaries of this? In a family setting, there is often one person paying for care whilst another person is managing and undertaking practical care work.  What does that tell us about hierarchies, relationships and relationalities in family care and between different forms of care?

We might then wonder what motivates people to engage in family caregiving. One person might undertake this specific care work as a way of reciprocating an act of caring that they received when they were younger. For example, some people look after a grandmother as the grandmother looked after them when they were small. They might also be undertaking care work, for the grandmother, as a way of supporting their own mother, as the mother might have asked them to step in for her as she feels that the duty to care rests with her but she is employed and needs help from them. Therefore other family members step in and undertake family care work, because they are supporting the broader needs of the family and household. They might do it as there is simply no other choice. There is no other forms of support and they cannot afford to pay for care.  Understanding the Who does what for Whom within family care and why they do it is critical to this programme but we are intersted in understanding it as a part of a wider individual, familial and societal history. So it needs to be understood within a wider context of kin relationships, relationalities in specific political-economic moments in time. This is how we are understanding family caregiving in this programme.

Family caregiving is not only to be understood as what happens in families alone. Family caregiving, has been privatised for far too long. Family caregiving is political. It has been used to create hierarchies and difference between and within families both in the past and in the present. On the one hand it is celebrated as a form of Ubuntu, a practice defining and displaying how we see each other as humans. On the other hand, family caregiving has been used to avoid taking responsibilities for care and addressing the gendered, racialised and classed consequences of the colonial and postcolonial context in which it occurs.  If we want to understand family caregiving, we need to listen to the experiences and meanings it has for individuals, families and communities.

This blog is summary of some of the key concepts of our Research Protocol, released in February 2023 and written by A/Prof Elena Moore.

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