Primary Health Care Research & Development


Caring for the carers: the characteristics of district nursing support for family carers

Kate Gerrisha1 c1

a1 Centre for Health and Social Care Research, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK


Aim This paper presents findings from an ethnographic study that examined how qualified district nurses’ conceptualized their role in relation to family carers and how they performed this aspect of their role.

Methods A participant observational study involving fieldwork and in-depth interviews with six district nursing teams was undertaken over a 12-month period. Interview transcripts and fieldnotes were analysed by drawing upon the principles of dimensional analysis.

Findings District nurses acted on the assumption that family carers would, by choice or default, provide care. Family carer support was conceptualized as a means of promoting self-care and the patient’s independence from nursing services. The rationale for providing family carer support was based largely on service capacity rather than on carer needs and preferences. Six characteristics of district nursing support for carers were identified: enabling, supporting, mediating, care substitution, crisis prevention and crisis intervention. Family carers were not recipients of district nursing support in their own right but were dependent upon the cared-for person receiving nursing care. This in turn was conditional upon others (general practitioners and hospitals) making appropriate patient referrals. Family carer support was also conditional upon effective communication and family carer receptiveness.

Conclusion As the scope of home-based nursing continues to increase, district nurses need to take a more active stance in providing family carer support and adopt a family rather than patient-focused approach in order that family carers might be supported more effectively.

(Received May 2006)

(Accepted November 2007)

Key words

  • district nursing;
  • ethnography;
  • family carer;
  • support


c1 Address for correspondence: Kate Gerrish, Centre for Health and Social Care Research, Sheffield Hallam University, 32 Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield S10 2BP, UK. Email:

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