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Who Cares?

For his work on the Covid-19 Reflections programme, photographer Sam Ivin created a series of portraits of carers whose often unpaid work was intensified during the pandemic. A selection of the images, currently being exhibited on the Open Eye Gallery’s exterior walls, are shared here along with reflections from the artist and carers who took part.

"We wouldn’t go out as often during lockdown so we were stuck in the house. We don’t go out anymore. We hardly go out ‘cause we’ve got use to it during Covid."

"My interest for the topic of carers is rooted in me working as a carer during the Covid pandemic," explains Sam Ivin. "I worked at a nursing home two days a week which I did not enjoy at all. I then worked full time at a neurological rehabilitation centre as a team supervisor. I enjoyed the work and it was rewarding, but it can be challenging at times."

"Dementia eats your brain so you don’t remember anything. It starts to get sad because they start forgetting you. I was the last person she ever forgot."

As part of his project, Ivin spent time with Cheshire Young Carers in Ellesmere Port. The group gives young people with caring responsibilities opportunities to socialise with others, giving them a chance to be children away from their responsibilities.

"The group is just time that I can spend with my friends because usually I have to help with my sister and things."

Over two days Ivin met a group of 14-18 year old carers and a group of 6-11 year olds and introduced them to photography. They learnt about wide range of photographers and the different genres of portraiture. The children got to try their hand at a Lucky Dip Colour exercise – photographing a colour chosen at random – as well as taking their own Polaroid portraits. Ivin photographed 18 young people himself and they each answered a few questions about their caring responsibilities.

"The pandemic definitely effected my mum heavily. She had been put on the extreme risk list because she was allergic to something in the vaccines, so she was terrified of going out and terrified when I went out, because of the fear that I might have it.

"I caught Covid four separate times even after I had every vaccine and wore my mask everywhere. I had to be shut in my bedroom unable to help my mum, she would leave me meals by my door. We communicated through text, call or standing on either end of the hallway with both of our masks on.

"I wasn’t allowed to touch her and that was the most difficult part for me. It was also difficult not being able to help my mum, she would push herself even though she didn’t have to. That would cause her pain to increase."

"I do the dishes for my mummy. I let the dog out for a wee for mummy."

"Care givers, or unpaid carers, often do not have the luxury of being able to switch off and they did not volunteer or ask to be carers – they are forced into it by circumstance," says Ivin who went into the project with questions he hoped to answer. "It is a 24/7 challenge in a lot of cases so I wanted to see how this impacted people. Do they enjoy it? Or was it just plain challenging? What defines who a caregiver is?"

"I started caring for my mother around 2020 and obviously it was hard with Covid. It was a nightmare for our family because my mother was really at risk. We had to be really careful when going to school so we wouldn’t give Covid to my mother. My father had to also be really careful in work, because if my mother caught Covid she was more at risk to die from it."

Ivin says that meeting care givers and hearing their stories has made him aware of how individual each circumstance is.

“Every carer's story is unique and each person they care for has their own set of specific needs," he says. "Young carers and children in general are so good at taking it in their stride and often don't know any different. They really value the Cheshire Young Carers Group, it's a chance to switch off, have fun and be with others who have a similar experience."

"I like the woods here and the people here really help."

"If my sister was crying in the morning I would always go in and see if she’s alright. I make her laugh, the minute she see’s me she laughs. We have this special bond together, so it’s really nice. Caring for someone is difficult but fun. I made this word up, I know it sounds a bit weird but 'funigle', so it’s fun but stressful."

As well as visiting the young carers groups, Ivin spent time with Carers Trust which provides assistance and regular meetings so unpaid carers can get a break from their caring duties, meet other caregivers and be signposted to relevant support.

"For one of my grandchildren, my mum knit this octopus with spiral tentacles. I can’t believe it when I go to my son’s house and look at that. She did that three and a half years ago, she can’t do anything now." Sue.

Ivin found just how much carer valued this respite, even if it's a few hours a week.

“Carers can become unwell, unhappy or isolated because they are so burnt out from caring for a loved one,” he says. "It can be a very isolating situation because the person you're caring for is so dependent on you. This can prevent you from living your own life, it can make it very difficult to 'switch off' and relax.”

"It feels like we're almost forgotten – before Covid, during Covid and after Covid. We're like a secret army of people and there's millions of us. And we're doing this very valuable work because we want to, often because we have no choice and because it matters."

The extent to which carers are undervalued is one thing that really struck Ivin.

"Often they don't get the full support they require," he says. "Often carers don't realise the support they're entitled to - particularly when they begin to care. Sometimes they don't even realise they are a carer. They just see it as helping a family member."

"Being a carer of someone with Alzheimers is the most challenging experience I have ever had to deal with. I do find it stressful, it affects my health as well. There are moments, though, where we have some quite nice times. We’ve been married for 50 years. He was really nice last night, he said, 'Thank you for all you’re doing and I do love you.' Things like that which he doesn’t say very often, but it is nice to hear him say it." Jilly.

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