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Welcome to the overview of the first interview in the Carers’ Hearts series ‘March Male Carers Month’.
I was honoured to be able to interview Greg Smith, founder of Men Care Too in Tasmania, Australia, and ask him some questions about his experiences of being a male carer, the emotional and psychological challenges he faces in that role and the work he does to support other male carers.
So, firstly I asked Greg about his experiences of being both being a young carer and now as an adult male unpaid carer and what were, or are, the biggest emotional and psychological challenges he faces.
Greg shared how when he younger he was caring for different family members with different physical and mental health challenges. He reflected that one of the emotions he experienced was fear, fear of not knowing or understanding what was happening and not knowing how to talk to his friends and workmates about what was going on at home, everything was kept private. So, not knowing how to talk to other people amplified a lot of the feelings and emotions he was having. In addition to that, being a young bloke brought up in a rough, tough Australian culture, going to rugby league games, car racing, all that sort of activities with strong masculine connotations, which is typical for an ‘Ozzie’, increased the sense of not being able to show emotions, except, of course, being happy or sad if your team wins or loses!
Greg recognised a whole range of emotions in himself, for example when a family member was unwell, he experienced anxiety, which probably came from being confused and stressed about what was happening and being worried about the future. He reflected that he was probably also feeling a bit vulnerable because of not understanding what was going on and not really knowing how to respond to them or what to do. Greg shared that he probably felt a bit isolated from his friends as wel, because they didn’t understand his personal situation, as he didn’t feel comfortable talking about it with them.
But reflecting back over those 15-20 years, he recognises that those experiences now help him to support other male carers and to help them to understand that you can feel anxious, hurt, even embarrassed, the whole range of different thoughts and emotions because it is hard for carers to talk about these things sometimes, particularly for blokes, when you are brought up not to show emotion, weakness or vulnerabilities, so communication is key.
I then asked Greg about how this strong male identity equates to be a male carer in Australia, particularly in the workplace.
He shared that there were high expectations to be either a strong male, perhaps with a physical type job, or being a successful businessman, focusing on your career. If you have got caring responsibilities as well, it is very hard to focus on your career, to talk to an employer about your situation or even talk about being a carer with your workmates, when everyone else is talking about the footie on the weekend or going to the pub after work, but you have to get home to take care of your loved one, so it’s hard to even bring the subject up. So, it can create issues with relationships, even with how the caring role is shared within families, as females are often seen more as the carers and nurturers, whereas the men are the protectors and providers. However, as in the UK, almost 50% of Australian carers are men, particularly in the older age groups where it skews towards older men being more prominent as carers. Often these older male carers are also caring for children, as well as partners and other family members, so, it is interesting when you look at the caring roles across lifespans and generations.
I then asked Greg what impact he thought the caring role had had on his psychological or emotional wellbeing.
Greg shared that as men are often seen as the ‘fixers’, there was an emphasis on ‘getting in and fixing things that are busted’ but if someone is unwell, you can’t just fix that. So, on the practical side of caring, men are good at being able to do the physical, practical things, like planning, housework and sorting out the medications, you adjust and adapt to what is needed. But the emotional aspect of it is harder, you can’t fix the situation and you can’t make the person you are caring for better. That’s when it gets really tough, particularly when you think about the future and what might happen, you can get stuck in a loop of fear and overthinking things.
He shared that he struggled with the fear of what will happen in the future for a long time, but it was actually a motivator for him to become more proactive with his own health. So, he started volunteering and setting himself up so that if circumstances changed in the future, he would be better prepared, practically and emotionally. He thought about the things he couldn’t control or change about the future, and although realising it wasn’t going to be easy, by thinking about these situations he was better able to prepare for them. Greg reflected that this was why he started Men Care Too, for himself, but also to try and share this understanding with other carers, particularly other men, to help them to not only focus on what is happening right now but to think about the future as well.
Next, I asked Greg, what were his personal de-stressors, or things that he does to help to stop himself from overthinking situations.
Greg shared that he is fortunate to live in a beautiful area in Tasmania, with plenty of places to get out for a walk or take the dog for a walk, which he enjoys. He also enjoys listening to music that takes him to another place, perhaps listening to some hard rock or heavy metal, which helps him to feel calm and relaxed. He reflected that it is doing something that is going to put your head in a different space, even for a little while and will give you some precious time to recognise what your worries are and what you might be overthinking, just to get out and do something for yourself for a while. Even having just half an hour to get away from the caring role, is a really good opportunity to change thought patterns, give yourself time to think clearly, then come back later when often you can look at something from a different perspective. He recognises that it can be hard to do for many carers, if you are supporting someone who needs you there all the time, it can be difficult. But trying to find even a five-minute window so you can take that little break, step outside and take a few deep breaths, can make a big difference.
I then asked Greg why he started Men Care Too and about the work he is doing supporting other male carers.
Greg reflected that he started Men Care Too about four years ago, and the idea had come to him when he had been involved with a cancer peer support group. A majority of the carers in the group were men, and as he began talking to them, about their situations and stories, he realised that while many were caring for a loved one, they had different caring roles and responsibilities. He became aware that he shared similarities with some of those roles, and unlike the difficulties he found in talking to his mates, being around those other guys who were also carers, he found that conversations felt more natural and comfortable. It gave him the confidence to talk to others about his own caring role, and that is where the idea for Men Care Too came from.
Greg feels strongly that men don’t receive the recognition they should do as carers, partially because of the expectations and stereotypes in society, where females are considered nurturers and carers and men are the providers. However, in reality, we know that this is not the case and in fact, men make up nearly half of unpaid carers in many countries, not just Australia. Greg wants to remind service providers, government organisations and everyone out there, that men are carers too. For a long time as a young male caregiver, he felt that he didn’t fit into the ‘role’ of a carer because he was a man, so he is working hard to shine a spotlight on this through Men Care Too.
Greg shared that he was lucky to meet with his Deputy Premier recently and talk to him about male carers, as well as about men’s mental health in general. The statistics around male suicide and physical health of men in Australia aren’t great, probably similar to those in the UK and these are other topics that need to be more openly spoken about. Men tend to push their problems aside, putting off going to see their doctor or specialist about things that might be worrying them, perhaps even putting them off until it’s too late. So, he is trying to encourage a more proactive approach to men’s health and feels that this will then flow into better support for male carers.
One of Greg’s hopes it that services become more proactive in the way they engage with males, across all social and community sectors. As part of driving forward building strong links and relationships with other organisations that support men’s mental wellbeing, Men Care Too links with other national charities in Australia, such as Mr. Perfect, who organise BBQs and Man Walks. Greg has found that a lot of men who attend these activities will also have a caring story, and over time, as they build trust and new relationships with others, they begin to share those stories. So, opportunities to get together for social events such as BBQs and walks, are great events for men of all ages to go and build their confidence and start those more difficult conversations, when they are ready.
Greg shared that another great opportunity for men to support each other, which are also available in the UK and USA, are Men’s Sheds. Although they can be seen as being more typically as a place where retired guys might go, Greg believes that they are also a great place for younger men to go as well, to learn from those older men, who have had a lifetime of experience. He gives an example that once you are in the shed and start working on a project, you are focused on that, and so it is easier to have a relaxed conversation with another guy, that might be a bit harder if you just sit there, face to face with them. Greg feels another strength of Men’s Sheds are that the activities flow back into the community, the men in the Men’s Sheds are working on their projects and that keeps them engaged and connected with each other, and the items they make then benefit the communities around them.
I asked Greg if he had some advice for listeners, particularly for guys that might find it difficult to talk to others about their caring role.
Greg explained that he has three key messages he shares through Men Care Too, and these are things he wished he had known earlier on in his life when he first started caring. The first is ‘Being Informed’ by learning what you can about the illness or disability affecting the person you care for might have, you can plan and be better prepared for potential changes in the future. The second one is ‘Staying Active’ because when you are caring for someone it can be a long-term or physically intense situation, so looking after your own physical health is really important. He then shared that the most important of these messages is ‘Getting Connected’, whether it is going for a walk, play cards or going to a social or sports club, it is important to find something that you enjoy doing away from your caring role, something that you can look forward to as your own break, your own little bit of time just for you. He reflected that as a caregiver you can get stuck in a routine, often because it is easy and comfortable there, but having that little bit of time out, where you can be around other people, away from that caring role is really important. For Greg ‘Connection’ is key in all parts of life, so having social connections is crucial to being physically and emotionally healthy.
We are truly grateful to Greg for sharing his experiences, thoughts and work at Men Care Too with us at Carers’ Hearts. So, to bring this first interview blog to a close, we would like to reiterate what Greg said about ‘Being Informed’, ‘Get Connected and ‘Staying Active’. Even if you feel uncomfortable talking to your friends or family about your role as a male carer, there are other groups of men out there, across the globe, ready to welcome you in and to be there for when you are ready. Caring is a challenging role for anyone, regardless of gender, age or experience, but by considering your own physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing and reaching out to like-minded people, it can also be a rewarding, fulfilling and meaningful role, together we are stronger.
The next interview is with David and Richard, which will be published on March 17. David cares for Richard, but Richard himself was a young carer and also has experience of the paid caring role. The dynamics between them and the open and honest conversations that they have with me are really insightful, so, really looking forward to sharing that with you soon.
Thank you for reading. I hope you found this interview with Greg as interesting, as informative as I did, and I am looking forward to sharing the next interview with David and Richard. Also, don’t forget Sak’s workshop on March 25, at 7.30pm (UK), the link is below to sign up and please share with any guys you think would like to come along.
Sak is an experienced coach and trainer, who specialises in men’s mental fitness and supporting men’s, not just male carers, mental wellbeing, so don’t miss that.
Thank you again and remember, what a special thing it is that you do.
About Greg Smith
Greg’s experience with the caring role came in his early 20’s when his mum, Lyn was diagnosed with Cancer of Unknown Primary. Leaving fulltime employment in Sydney for casual work locally, Greg was able to accompany his mum during treatments and appointments over the following months. During this time, Greg’s father developed mental health issues and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder which resulted in his dad retiring from work early.
It was not until his mother and father separated in 2008 that Greg started to identify the caring role he was, and had been, providing over the previous 10 years. Following his parents divorce, Greg continued to work and study for a period of time before he recognised that, due to a degenerative spinal condition, his mum needed more support. Since that time Greg has been in a full time, informal, unpaid carer role.
Greg’s primary caring responsibilities include assisting with mobility, monitoring medications, managing transport, scheduling medical and other appointments, meal planning and preparation, laundry, cleaning, shopping and other general household maintenance tasks. Just as important as the practical assistance carers provide, is the emotional support and encouragement carers bring to their role. Greg believes that for many men, including himself, this is the most challenging aspect when caring for someone.
Greg is a dedicated advocate for men in caring roles and where possible promotes general awareness of the caring role to the wider community. As former Vice President of Candles Cancer Support Group INC. over a 10 year period and facilitator of various carer peer support groups, Greg has encouraged and helped to support men and women in different caring roles.
In mid 2017 Greg spent two months working at Carers NSW researching and identifying opportunities to engage with and identify hidden male carers. The hidden male carer project will continues and Greg is still involved as a member of the working party.
Greg has had an opportunity to share his story and highlight the challenges faced by men in caring roles at Men’s Sheds around the Central Coast, Hunter Region and Greater Sydney plus at a variety of men’s groups and special events including,
- 2015 Carers NSW Biannual Conference
- 2016 International Cancer Survivors Day, Central Coast
- 2017 International Carers Conference
- 2017 National Male Suicide Conference
- 2017 Central Coast Carers Conference
- 2018 NSW Health Carers Conference
- 2019 WellMan Tour of North Queensland
- 2019 Over The Line Race Day at Wyong Racecourse
- 2019 This Is My Brave Australia, Central Coast Show
Outside of the caring role and advocacy work, Greg enjoys photography, hiking, reading biographies and true stories and is a loyal Canterbury Bulldogs supporter.
Male Carers Month Free Workshop
Thursday 25th March at 7.30pm online.
This practical & evidence-based workshop for male carers, will provide practical tools to help you to take control of your mental wellbeing.
“The pressure and expectations of caring can make carers particularly vulnerable. In this interactive and engaging session for Carers’ Hearts, Sak will be sharing real-time or ‘fast skills’ male carers can use during stressful times. He’ll also be distinguishing these strategies from those that build long-term resilience. Participants will also get the opportunity to share the strategies that currently work for them. Sak is the Founder and Lead Mental Fitness Coach at ORANGE BALL. He is an experienced and accredited Executive Coach and Mentor and a Positive Psychology Practitioner.
To find out more about Sak and Orange Ball, please visit his website or give him a call.
Contact: 0333 050 6541
Mr Perfect – More than a BBQ
Men’s Shed – Australia – Shoulder to Shoulder
Man Walks – Groups mainly in Australia, but also a couple in the UK and the US.