Poet Sarah Holland-Batt On The Role Of Caring

by Life at MECCA M-POWER
Thursday 9 November 2023

Sarah Holland Large

MECCA M-POWER partner, Stella, is a major voice for gender equality and cultural change in Australian literature.  With the prestigious annual Stella Prize, the recently introduced Stella Day Out, and an array of other impactful initiatives, Stella champions Australian women writers, confronts gender bias in the literary sector and connects outstanding books with readers.

2023 Stella Prize winner and author of ‘The Jaguar’, Sarah Holland-Batt, was among the featured authors at the recent Stella Day Out literary festival. Here, Sarah explores her journey caring for her father with Parkinson’s Disease and asks us to relook at how we value the role of the carer

I can’t pinpoint the moment I first noticed that my father needed my care. Maybe it was the day he had difficulty doing up his seatbelt, so I reached over to snap the buckle into place. It might have been when I first helped him with a tricky shoelace or a stubborn button—or when he nearly tripped on a kerb, and I offered him my arm to steady himself. Caring often sneaks up on you like this—it’s part of the fabric of your life before you realise it.  

When Dad was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I was eighteen. At that age, I didn’t fully appreciate just what those minute changes in his coordination would come to mean. Dad’s tremor was barely perceptible back then: a little flicker of electricity in his fingertips when his hand was at rest. In time, that tremor would cause seismic shifts in our family, reversing our parent-child relationship, and making me Dad’s carer. 

Carer wasn’t a term I’d thought about much before it found me, and it certainly wasn’t a word I ever anticipating applying to myself. But caring, I learnt, isn’t always a choice. It’s a vocation: something we are called to do out of love, duty, loyalty, and countless other reasons. It’s often unpaid, it’s mostly unseen—and yet because caring entails helping to uphold the humanity and dignity of others, it’s one of the most important acts we can ever do.  

We don’t talk openly enough about how challenging caring can be. It’s exhausting and stressful. It can be emotionally draining. It can impact your likelihood of experiencing anxiety or depression, your career prospects, your super balance, and your social life. Most of all, it can make you feel as though you’ll never quite catch up with your to-do list. And there’s no induction or user manual: mostly, you’ve got to blunder through, trying to stay upbeat when you feel inadequate to the task. It’s a complex juggle. Everybody drops a ball or two.

In spite of all these factors, I found caring one of the most transformative experiences of my life. It taught me patience, persistence and resilience. It made me a more observant person, and a kinder and more thoughtful one. As difficult as it was to see my father in a state of vulnerability, especially during his years living with dementia, I recognised that there were always small acts I could do to improve his day and to make life easier for him, which is a lesson I’ve tried to carry forward elsewhere in my life. When Dad experienced failures of care during his final years in an aged care home, it was a privilege to advocate for him when he couldn’t speak for himself. 

I’m not sure why it was such a revelation to me that caring could be just as meaningful and valuable for the carer as much as it is for the care recipient. I’d clearly internalised some of our cultural dismissal and devaluation of carers. We often describe caring as a selfless act, as though it’s a form of sacrifice. It’s also frequently derided as unskilled work, though anyone who has ever received care will tell you, good care requires great talent, imagination, creativity and endurance. And it’s also often figured as a burden: something nobody wants to do. 

The statistics showing Australia’s chronic undervaluing of care work are sobering. 1 in 9 Australians—around 2.6 million people—are informal carers, providing roughly 2.2 billion hours of unpaid care annually. This same volume of care would cost an estimated $77.9bn if it were paid. And there’s a strong gendered dimension, which have far-reaching implications for women: while men do act as informal carers, 71.8% of all primary carers are women. The average age of female carers in Australia is 55: an age when women are still in the workforce while often caring for more than one generation of their family at once. By contrast, the average age of male carers is 75—well past retirement age. The career implications for women carers are clear. 

Even formal carers—those who are paid for their work within the aged care, disability or health care sectors—are paid poorly, and frequently work in casualised, precarious, understaffed environments. The care workforce is feminised. Demographically, caring is dominated by migrant women, many of whom do not feel empowered to demand better working conditions or higher pay. 

Yet if we wish to see an improved standard of care for vulnerable people in our community—or even, selfishly, a better system for ourselves in the future—then we need to value what carers contribute to our community and society by supporting better pay, career development pathways, safe working conditions and staffing levels and adequate training to attract young people to caring as a career.

Most people who are drawn to care—either informally or formally—are motivated by a genuine concern for the wellbeing of others. They want to make a positive difference. They are the kinds of people who will not only do all the usual things we think of when we think about caring, but will go the extra mile, whether it’s a volunteer bringing in a favourite snack for an aged care resident, an NDIS carer taking the extra time to help a client feel good by painting their nails, or a mother sitting and reading a favourite book to their child. All of these are important and loving acts of care too. 

But just because carers are generous in spirit, we shouldn’t take advantage of that, or expect them to do this work unacknowledged and unthanked. Caring is profound work, and we should all work for it to be better valued in our workplaces, our healthcare system, and our communities. Even small tweaks to the way we speak about caring can help to spark that change. We need to care about and for carers—just as, one day, they may care for us too. 

Purchase The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt here