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Denise Turnbull from Phoenix Group talks about being a ‘sandwich’ carer and about how she is using that experience to help other carers at her workplace.
As a former sandwich carer – looking after both her mother and her children – Denise Turnbull knows the challenges of balancing work and caring responsibilities. Over the last few years, Denise has cared for her mother after she developed dementia and four years ago her daughter was diagnosed as autistic. She is also extremely aware of how much of a difference it can make if you have an understanding employer.
Denise has been working at insurance firm Standard Life in Edinburgh, now part of Phoenix Group, for 37 years, in large part because it is such a good employer. Although she has had many different jobs over those 37 years, she has spent the last 20 – while her children were little [her daughter is now 21 and her son is 16] – as a Business Analyst.
For around five years until 2019 Denise was caring for her mother after she was diagnosed with dementia. At first, her mum was able to live independently, but as time and the dementia progressed, she became more dependent on Denise and her family. Denise, who worked part time at that point, had to take time off to take her mum to appointments in case she got lost or could not remember the things the doctors told her. As the illness developed, her mum started going outside and wandering the streets. On one occasion a neighbour spotted her wandering in the snow and she was taken to hospital. It was lucky that she didn’t get hypothermia. At that point Denise and her family realised their mum could not live on her own.
They started looking for a care home for her. Denise says Phoenix Group was very supportive, allowing her to take carers leave to visit homes. There was pressure to act swiftly because the hospital needed her mum’s bed. She also had to take time off to sell her mum’s flat after a home was found.
Denise also had to cope with the emotional pressure of seeing her mother deteriorate: her mum was initially not happy about not being in her own flat, which made Denise and her family feel very guilty. She was also angry with the family and the care home staff, and took a long time to settle in. “We knew that it was the dementia talking and not mum, but it was difficult and sometimes I would leave in tears,” she says. Eventually, things settled down at the care home and Denise at least knew her mum was safe and that she had done the best she could for her.
Through all of this Denise was also raising her children and, more recently, has been looking after her aunt. Her daughter was diagnosed with autism at the age of 17 after she became ill with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder and had to leave school. Denise tried to keep going, but found it overwhelming so her boss encouraged her to take time off to support her daughter and also look after her own well-being.
Since then it has been hard at times to get her daughter the support she needs and just before the first Covid lockdown her daughter decided to take time out because she was struggling and swinging between periods of being totally fine and periods of acute anxiety. Denise has been able to take carers leave to help her, for instance, to accompany her on hospital visits.
Throughout all of this she says work has been “brilliant” and very understanding. Being at work when her mum had dementia also gave her a space where she could feel normal. She was also able to speak to colleagues who had been through similar experiences through Phoenix Group’s carers network. Even so, juggling different caring responsibilities takes its toll. After her mum died, Denise herself was not well, probably because she was so run down.
Denise has been able to use all that experience, however, to help others. She is now chair of the carers network, which was set up in 2015 in response to the number of employees who had caring responsibilities. It was the first of the company’s 10 employee network groups. Denise says it has over 200 members, but that that number can be quite fluid, as some people become carers overnight while others are only carers for a short period.
She says ensuring everyone who has caring responsibilities is aware of the network can be a challenge since some people who have caring responsibilities don’t think of themselves as carers, but the network does blogs and events to draw attention to the support available and take away the stigma that may still be associated with being a carer. There are sessions on everything from power of attorney to dementia care. The network, which also joins forces with Phoenix Group’s Mind Matters network on mental health for some events, has worked with Carers Scotland and other external bodies. Recently they did a video with Carers Scotland after they won its highest award.
Denise became chair of the network in 2019, just before Covid. She says colleagues have had a mixed experience of Covid. For some, it meant more time with their loved one, but for others it was hard not being able to get a break due to the closure of day centres and other support. However, Denise says Phoenix Group has been very understanding, allowing people to flex their hours. Phoenix also increased its paid carers leave to 10 days at the start of the pandemic, And Denise adds that all this is led from the top, with CEO Andy Briggs being very passionate about the kind of issues that face older workers, including caring responsibilities.
Denise says the support Phoenix Group provides is invaluable, immeasurable. “If I had not had such an understanding employer I would maybe have had to leave my job,” she says simply.
*Phoenix Group, the UK’s largest long-term savings and retirement business, is sponsoring workingwise.co.uk’s second National Older Workers Week in November.