Dirt, disgust and embarrassment: caregivers’ responses to ageing bodies

Cavaye, Joyce (2010). Dirt, disgust and embarrassment: caregivers’ responses to ageing bodies. In: 5th International Carers Conference: New frontiers in caring: 2010 and beyond, 8-11 Jul 2010, Leeds.


The intimate and personal care provided for older people by informal carers has been recognised as a form of bodywork (Twigg 2000, 2006). While bodywork may not be undertaken by all informal carers, it is central to those who are at the ‘heavy end’ of caring. Yet many of the existing studies about bodywork have centred primarily on paid carers working in the health and social care sectors (Shakespeare 2003, Twigg 2006). Furthermore, in terms of social work literature and theory, the body is invisible, unproblematised and under-theorised. Bodies are implicit and taken-for-granted while other phenomena, such as emotion, sensation and cognition tend to be overlooked (Cameron and McDermott 2007). These omissions mean that little is known about unpaid carers’ experiences of bodywork and the associated emotions and sensations arising from the challenges of caregiving.

This paper highlights the problematic and invisible nature of bodywork. It draws on a longitudinal qualitative study which used a grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of unsupported carers of older people who initially had no help to provide personal and intimate care.

Findings reveal that as caregivers deal with deteriorating and ageing bodies, they are confronted daily with the unpleasant realities of bodywork, with increasing levels of dependency and the changing nature of relationships with care recipients and service providers. The paper argues that younger carers in particular, find bodywork one of the most distressing and challenging parts of their role; that service providers need to be aware of this issue. They should not assume that carers can manage this aspect of their role with equanimity.

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