My mum’s death makes me want a care revolution

Ruth Hannan Influencing, Poverty in the UK, Women's Economic Empowerment

Carers don’t want to be ‘saints’ or ‘angels’, says Ruth Hannan: they just want the same opportunities as everyone else. In a blog for Carers Week in the UK, she says we need to look way beyond sticking-plaster solutions such as respite breaks to radical measures that deliver real economic justice.

Ruth Hannan (left) and Hannah Webster, co-founders of Care Full

Recently, my lovely Mum died. We are still grieving for this profound loss and think every day of her struggles with care over many years: challenges that became mine, and that of my sister too. In the deepest part of my soul, when I rage at all that Mum missed out on, what I hope for this Carers Week is revolution.

Our experiences of unpaid care for my mum and others in our family prompted my husband to share this clip of Seamus Heaney reading his poem ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, inspired by the myth of the Irish saint Kevin who, when a blackbird nested in his hand and laid an egg, remained selflessly in that agonising position until the baby bird hatched. 

‘We should make everyone see that that my Mum
was us, we will be her. Care affects us all.’

That poem about the self sacrifice of St Kevin, who has to forget himself to care for others, speaks strongly to unpaid carers like me, my Mum, my sister and my Dad. Society talks about carers as “heroes”, “angels”, as self-sacrificing and long-suffering. We admire and pity them in equal measure but are unwilling to make any significant societal changes that will enable them to have care be part of their life as opposed to their whole life.

Carer breaks? We need a four-day week and Universal Basic Income

At Care Full the UK organisation I co-founded with the amazing Hannah Webster we have actively avoided focusing on talking about “support”, “identification” and “awareness” of carers (phrases you’ll hear a lot this Carers Week). Instead, we want to highlight that the problem for carers is that our socioeconomic system needs to change. Our economy needs to change, to stop equating value only with what is produced.

We talk about respite breaks, carer breaks, funding social care… While these will provide some help, they won’t address the fundamental issues that mean carers are poorer, in poorer health, and have fewer life and employment opportunities than their non-carer neighbours. Instead of these sticking-plaster solutions, we should be exploring potentially transformative measures such as the Four Day Week, Universal Basic Income and Universal Basic Services.

Carers shouldn’t be treated as saints but as everyday citizens whose lives may be more complicated as a result of them being carers. In the 21st century, we should all be able to access the same life and economic opportunities. Sadly, too often that’s not the case. In the UK, 600 people quit work every day to be able to care, to be then faced with their wages being replaced by a substandard Carers Allowance (and many don’t even get that). The lack of financial support mean these carers will face a greater likelihood of living in poverty. No amount of well-meaning coffee mornings or MP pledges will address that.

How neglect of care and carers affected my mum – and will affect all of us

Mum was a carer for nearly 20 years, for different members of my family. Her wellbeing was deeply impacted by this. When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s two years after her last stint of providing care ended, the mantle of caring passed to me and my sister.

In all of that time – which included periods when I was working for carers’ organisations – my Mum’s experience didn’t improve, and I saw little shift in the time my sister and I cared for her.

While I hope for revolution this Carers Week, I will settle for a wider understanding that care applies to absolutely all of us. We should challenge narratives that allows care to be ignored. Instead we should make everyone see that that my Mum was us, we will be her. Care affects us all and our economy and society should work for us all, both as carers and those who need care.

So what I realistically ask for this Carers Week is as follows:

  • a serious conversation and commitment from any new UK government to look at a new economic model;
  • a clear commitment to hold a participatory conversation on what a welfare state for the 21st century should be;
  • a wide-scale trial on Universal Basic Income and Universal Basic Services; and
  • a move to talk about care as foundational to our society, and get it out of the silo of social care.

In ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, Heaney says: “Imagine being Kevin. Which is He? Self-forgetful or in agony all the time.” Even if carers forget themselves, society must not.


Ruth Hannan

Ruth Hannan has many years’ experience working with and being an unpaid carer. She led on the Triangle of Care programme for many years and is now co-founder of Care Full.

Find out more about Care Full here.
And check out our blog about Oxfam’s recent “Valued” paper, calling for a new approach to care in the UK: “Across Britain, paid and unpaid care work remains undervalued and ignored: here are six ways governments can change that”
You can also find out more about Oxfam’s Valuing Women’s Work campaign here