Book review: Who Cares by Emily Kenway

Emily Kenway’s new book is a passionate argument for normalising caregiving as a central facet of what it means to be human.

Elder Care


We all know that the care sector is in crisis, with staff shortages affecting services up and down the country, but what about the army of unpaid carers, who have battled through the pandemic often with little support?

A new book gives a passionate account of what it is like to be an unpaid carer and argues that we need to completely rethink the way we operate as a society, giving care a much more central position rather than squeezing it around the edges.

Emily Kenway’s Who cares gives an up-close account of caring for her mother during her final years with cancer. It is an angry book, but at the centre of is a huge burning ball of love. And it is the human ties between carer and cared for that Kenway says are the things that we tend to ignore by focusing on task-based activities and logistics.

It can’t solely be done by focusing on paid care or care robots because care is much more than that, she states. Most care is still provided by family members, she says, and not just due to a lack of care services, although having these clearly helps, and that is “because of love, because of reciprocity, because of cultural norms and because it’s simply necessary due to the unpredictable and bodily reality of care”.

She asks: “What might a society look like that understood care as an inherent part of human life, instead of a problem in need of a quick fix?”

A wake-up call

Kenway wants her book to serve as a wake-up call to all of us, given we are all likely to need or give care at some point in our lives. She says: “We are only ever temporarily well, temporarily able and temporarily young. Accident, illness and old age will be part of our lives at some point, in our own bodies and in those we love. It follows, then, that we should also expect to be caregivers.”

This is even more likely as we live longer, but with more years of chronic illness. Kenway says this will mean we need a complete shift in our attitudes to work and life generally. The book was written in the midst of the pandemic, when care was foregrounded in a way it rarely is and when the Women’s Budget Group and others called for care to be seen as a central part of economic infrastructure. It was also a time that highlighted the gendered nature of both paid and unpaid care. The book also covers the class-based nature of care, much of the paid care being done by women from lower socio-economic backgrounds many of whom have their own domestic caring responsibilities too.

Love and obligation

So what needs to change? Firstly, mindset: Kenway argues that we need to change our ideas about individualism and ‘freedom’. She says we are not free because we are bound by love and obligation. “It’s a question of dethroning the falsehood of the free individual and replacing it with a conception of the self that’s embedded in relationships, whose autonomy is predicated on their support,” she writes.

When it comes to practical changes around working and caring, Kenway says we need a range of social and legal changes: the creation of a commons of care, an updated version of the kind of kinship groups that spread the care load as well as legislation to protect caregivers, regardless of their employment status. For instance, we might consider a right to provide care and including caregiving in protected characteristics alongside maternity as well as changes in how benefits function, making them more portable and universal, to allow for temporary periods of absence from the workplace. For many carers work is a respite, providing a sense of normality in the midst of chaos, and enabling people to stay in work has a long-term health and economic benefit.

Kenway argues that all jobs need to be appropriate for caregivers given that caregiving will affect us all and that carers need to be recognised as equals in the workplace, with care being normalised and respected as a central facet of being human. She writes: “In the provider-caregiver future, we’ll be recognised as humans, our love and care will be of equal importance to ideas about productivity and profit creation, and that importance will be enshrined in law.”

*Who cares: the hidden crisis of caregiving, and how we solve it by Emily Kenway is published by Wildfire Books, price £22.

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