A blog entry by Camille Allard

Western societies are ageing fast and care is a matter of concern for institutions and politics, as well as people.  For several decades now, decisions have been made to favour the care of older, disabled and ill people at home. But behind these decisions and the shift to the deinstitutionalisation of care, other people are also present alongside those conventionally labelled as the vulnerable: “carers”. Carers may be our relatives, our friends, our neighbours, who take care of a vulnerable person on a daily basis. In the UK, their precious contribution has been recognised by society as early as the 1960’s, however, there is still place for improvement. Currently, the Carer Allowance that carers may benefit is limited to 64, 60 £ for 35 hours of caring a week, which lead a number of them into financial distress; workplace supports may also be rare or disparate, and policies as paid carer leaves are not statutory. A number of organisations is still campaigning to improve carers’ support. Carers UK, the UK’s only national membership charity for carers is one such organisation and a partner in the ESRC-funded Sustainable Care programme.

Caring is a complex and multi-dimensional reality, and it begins first with the language we become accustomed to using. The simple way we call our “carers” carers is not innocuous, and the different names given to them across countries can also be very illustrative of how institutions, communities and politics shape support and recognition of what carers are doing. ‘Care’ and ‘caring’ are strongly cultural, embedded in a precise economic, political and societal context. An entire area of study, named “proximologie” has even been shaped in Europe to designate the roles of the close circle and family environment of the person cared-for. To give some examples, we can look at the way others societies name their carers: even if care is a polysemous term – which has been widespread all over the world (another Anglicism to adopt!) – some countries have their own way to name their carers.

In the French and French-Canadian case, the language used to describe carers in official texts is still very unstable: “Aidants naturels”, “proches aidants”, “aidants familiaux”,“aidants profanes” are the most common terms used through the literature and official reports, which translate as “natural helpers”; “close helpers”; “family’s helpers”; “profane helpers” respectively. “Aidants naturels”, “proches aidants“ designate the close relatives who care for the person. “Aidant naturel” as a “naturel helper”, appears to emphasise the importance of the filial connection: it can be closely related to the fact that the duty to provide alimentation resources to family relatives is mandatory in France when these relatives cannot sustain themselves anymore. However, such as a term can also be controversial: it raises tensions regarding the issues of choice and autonomy for “les aidants naturels”, who, by their position in the family should naturally accept this innate role of helper for their older or disabled relatives. Sometimes such a position to fulfil is also justified in regard to the reciprocity of care: children should repay the care they received by supporting their ageing parents. However, this filial duty is still more likely to be enacted daughters, sisters and daughters-in-law, following the traditional devolution of care duties to women.  Then, pressure of social and gendered norms as well as strong calls for individual responsibility may underlie the use of these adjectives “naturel” and “proches.” They may also undermine the necessary questions of free choices, actions and resources for carers.

Elderly hand in younger hand

In Spain, where care can be translated as “cuidar”, terms such as “cuidadores informales” and “cuidadores familiares” are the most widely used to describe carers, similar to the English “informal carers” and the French “aidants profanes”. These terms can be argued to convey the sense that these people are not really legitimate carers: they are only the “substitute” with tensions between  them and other experts and professionals of care, especially regarding the question of what is good care, and to which extent these “informal, profane” aidants/ cuidadores/ carers should be consulted about it. On the other hand, it could also be argued that such terms of “profane” and “informal” also designate these carers as the perfect mediators between the professionals of care and the person-cared-for: they could constitute the necessary tripartite element to every good relationship of care.

But the question of how to support “informal carers” remains. If they are “informal” in what they do, can they be formally supported and recognised? To respond to this challenge, the Sustainable Care programme is focusing on researching and creating sustainable care relationships that value unpaid carers and promote their wellbeing.

Reflecting upon the terms used for carers through different societies can bring us some interesting perspectives. It can also help us to understand that care, although still being generally embraced by love, affection and commitment, is also a cultural, societal, economic and political design, which impacts on the way people perceive themselves and the way they are making decisions about their care giving.

Camille Allard, PhD Student

elderly man with two female carers

Camille Allard is a PhD Student working in the Sustainable Care programme, read more about her work by clicking the link below

Combining Work and Care


Workplace support and its contribution to sustainable care arrangements