For the past year or so I have been researching and writing the history of family caregiving. Let me say that in no way can this be a comprehensive piece of work! I have chosen to focus mainly on care of the elderly, since this reflects my professional experience as a social worker.
“It’s just what we do.” This quote opens Tim Cook’s 2007 The History of the Carers’ Movement, which outlines the history of the British organisation now known as Carers UK. But caring for others goes back a long, long time, as Lorna Tilley demonstrates in her fascinating book Theory and Practice in the Bioarcheology of Care. She quotes a number of bioarchaeological authorities who say that most remains of older Neanderthal showed healing, ‘implying that the Neanderthals had achieved a level of societal development where disabled individuals were well cared for by others of the social group’.
Tilley explains disabilities revealed by DNA analysis, and considers the different types of care which must have been required to allow the injured person to live as long as they did. The ‘old man of Shanidar’ in Iraq, for example, was a Neanderthal who lived to a ripe old age—35 or 40—and survived numerous problems years before he died. Accidents to his head could have resulted in loss of vision in his left eye. He suffered from paralysis of his right arm, from an injury which may have occurred in childhood. Problems with his right humerus seem to have resulted in amputation at the elbow. He had osteomyelitis in the right collarbone, a fracture to his right foot and degenerative joint disease in his right knee and ankle.
A focus of my own book is caregiving in fiction and art. There are many examples of caregiving in literature—think, for example, of Miss Bates in Jane Austen’s Emma. In art I have found some splendid paintings of “Caritas Romana”, the story of Cimon and his daughter, Pero. The elderly Cimon is condemned to starvation in a Roman prison, but kept alive by the milk he sucks from the breast of his daughter who visits him every day. When this is discovered, instead of prosecuting Pero the authorities release her father and provide him with food for the rest of his days, so impressed are they with such a selfless love. This particular story has been painted and sculptured many times.
It turns out that the historical evidence of caring is all around us, once we start to look for it. It’s just what we do.
Beatrice Hale has a background in social work with older people, and a doctorate in anthropology, researching and writing on the supported independence of older people and on family care. She has written several gardening books with late colleague, Elizabeth Hinds, and has written two children’s novels, and one historical young adult novel. She is currently researching representations of caring in art for her book on the history of caregiving. She would love to communicate with others who are interested in this area. Beatrice can be contacted at email@example.com
 Elizabeth Roberts, in The History of the Carers’ Movement by Tim Cook. Carers UK, 2007.
 Cook, Tim. The History of the Carers’ Movement. London: Carers UK, 2007.
 Tilley, Lorna. Theory and Practice in the Bioarcheology of Care. Switzerland: Springer International. P17.
Also on Corpus by Beatrice Hale: Care?