Reaching Out To Children Carers
Children as young as four on Tyneside are looking after parents and family members with chronic long-term illnesses. Health reporter Jane Picken finds out about one project helping to ease the burden of being a young carer.
Vacuuming, dusting and preparing the family meal are all in a day’s work for Charlotte Rogers as she keeps on top of all the chores created by a family of three. For around fours years now she has been in charge of a bustling, happy household.
But bright Charlotte is not a housewife or even a busy mum. She’s a 13-year-old schoolgirl who dedicates her life to caring for her poorly mum, Jenny, and often her dad, John.
The family, from Crawcrook, Gateshead, have suffered a string of medical setbacks over the past few years – Jenny was struck with Cushing’s syndrome, which caused excessive weight gain and diabetes, had a brain tumour removed in 2000 and cannot walk very far due to arthritis in her leg.
It means mobility is severely restricted for Jenny, leaving many household tasks out of bounds and making getting in and out of the bath a dangerous affair. But thanks to the help of her son Carl, 21, and then Charlotte when Carl moved out, Jenny has had expert care, in particular ensuring she takes her medication – 12 tablets a day.
“I’ve done it for so long now it’s just a very simple thing,” explained Charlotte. “Although, when I go out with my friends and leave mum I really worry that something is going to happen to her.”
Jenny, 45, said: “I really can’t go out without Charlotte because I suffer from panic attacks and blackouts, and usually someone needs to push the wheelchair. It feels like Charlotte shouldn’t be nursing me and I should be looking after her, but without her I wouldn’t go out of the house.
“There’s nothing she can’t do around the house or to look after me. When I look at Charlotte and compare her with other children her age I feel like I’m taking away her childhood, but she gets on with it and never asks questions. I’m so proud of her.”
Speaking to Charlotte, it’s clear how confident and in control of the situation the youngster is, and as a top-grade pupil she’s even planning to go on to college and university to become a crime scene investigator.
And thanks to the Gateshead Young Carers Service, especially their mother and daughter sessions, Jenny and Charlotte have also been able to form a special bond aside from the daily difficulties of coping with debilitating illness.
The bubbly pair have attended mosaic-making classes and pamper days, all designed to get them out and about with other mums and daughters in a similar situation, and to strengthen their relationship.
If it were not for the groups, Jenny fears her life would be confined to the house, with only a sparse smattering of trips to the MetroCentre. “It was through Carl that we got involved with the Young Carers Service and when he was too old to go along Charlotte became involved,” explained Jenny.
“The group activities are a great way for them to make friends with similar experiences. And for me it’s great meeting the other mums – I don’t feel out of place because we have all been affected by some kind of illness. It gives us time to forget about what is wrong with me and just have a good laugh.”
The service is based at and affiliated to Gateshead Crossroads on Coatsworth Road, Shipcote, a national organisation which supports carers of all ages. Much of the funding for the project’s staff comes from Macmillan Cancer Support, which had itself found high truancy rates among children in households where a family member has cancer.
Any child aged between eight and 16 with caring responsibilities for a family member can get involved in the service – which aims to provide children with an opportunity to take time out from the stresses and strains of illness with and without their parents. It can be anything from flower-arranging classes with their mums to canoeing adventures with other children, days at the beach and horse riding.
“The emphasis is really on time-out activities for the youngsters to give them a break from their responsibilities at home,” explained Jill Stevens, activities co-ordinator for the project. “We’ve now got 250 carers from Gateshead aged between eight and 16 on our books – but we believe there are many more out there.”
The project will also provide counselling and support to children if they have problems or concerns about their home life – often a lifeline for children reluctant to talk through their troubles with a poorly parent. And if needed the Macmillan project can help set up support from professional carers or community support workers, who can take over duties including housework or shopping.
“It’s really a case of looking at each individual young carer who comes to us for help and seeing what we can do for them, because otherwise there is a lot they can miss out on,” added Karen Miller, young carers key worker. We could help with anything from helping them keep up with their school work to organising college visits if they are thinking about staying on at school. We could also train them in cooking skills and first aid.
“There’s nothing we haven’t covered and it’s about us telling the children what resources are out there to help them. It’s also important for us to help improve these children’s confidence and self-esteem. Sometimes these children get bullied at school because of their home life. Here they know they can talk to us about anything and can also meet children who are carers just like them.”
It’s a situation all too familiar for 13-year-old Charlotte, who suffered at the hands of bullies at a previous school, prompting her to move with her family and start attending Ryton Comprehensive School.
“At the time I didn’t have many friends because I was in the house a lot taking care of mum but the bullies would call my mum names and once they pushed me down the stairs at school,” remembers Charlotte. “They even put sticks in my bicycle wheels. But since I started the new school no-one says anything and if they do I won’t take it lying down like I did before.”
Any young carer experiencing bullying can turn to the project for workshops on how to handle stress, bullies, anger and other emotional issues. “A lot of the children could have very difficult home lives and they often feel quite isolated, especially if they are caring for someone with a mental health problem or drugs and alcohol abuse issues,” explained Lynn Readman, young carers manager at Gateshead.
“It’s not something they would want to talk to their friends about so they end up bottling things up. But if we take the young carer out for the day it can help them talk about things and it also helps us understand what is going on in their family so we can help.”