The increased responsibilities of young carers often go unnoticed, their childhood and young adult years put on the back burner as they care for their families.
To address the issues facing carers, especially young carers, we need to raise awareness about the challenges they encounter. This year’s Carers Week (6th-12th June) is focused on making caring visible, valued and supported. The hope is that by highlighting the challenges for unpaid carers and the contributions they make to families and communities, more support will be made available to them.
Carina Andrews is 28 and lives in Bristol. She has been caring for her mother and father since she was 5 years old. Here, she tells Refinery29 UK how being a young carer impacted her childhood and young adult years.
I remember I started caring for my mum when I was 5 years old. My sister had just been born and her birth triggered postnatal depression in Mum. My dad worked long hours in his job and wasn’t around much, which meant it was left to me to make sure everyone at home was taken care of. I remember Mum being sad a lot and often lying in her bed. It was as if a fog had consumed her. I can recall hearing my baby sister crying and Mum not being able to respond to her needs so I did. I would entertain her, make her bottles and soothe her when she cried.
Mum’s postnatal depression spiralled into severe depression as the early years of my childhood progressed, leaving me to fend for myself and my sister. There were afternoons I realised my uniform hadn’t been washed, so I cleaned it myself. When I felt my stomach rumble I made something to eat, rather than asking Mum.
When Mum started self-harming, long before I was a teen, it was my responsibility to make sure she had bandages and plasters afterwards. There were a couple of times I phoned the ambulance to come get her when I felt out of my depth. If she stayed in hospital overnight, I took care of my sister while Dad was still in work.
To me, our life was normal. I thought every eldest child had the same responsibilities as I did.
As a teenager, life became a bit more complicated as I tried to manage my studies and everything going on at home. In year 8 I had unexplained stomach pains most days, causing me to miss nearly a whole year of school. Doctors tested me and found nothing. Looking back, I’m sure the pains were an effect of feeling anxious to leave Mum on her own.
When I was 13, Mum was placed in a psychiatric hospital for a month. If Dad was working, I was left in charge of the house, myself and my sister. When she got home from hospital, I felt like I had become the mother. I took it on myself to do all the cleaning and cooking. I dressed myself and my sister and made sure Mum ate and bathed.
As an added pressure, my dad started to show signs of what we later learned was Parkinson’s disease. I kept encouraging him to stay in work – we needed the income.
I recall being frustrated throughout high school that I couldn’t seem to focus long enough to revise or complete homework like everyone in my class could. Although I didn’t resent Mum or Dad for their mental and physical issues, I wished someone could have come to the house to help me with all the jobs that had been left for me to do.
At 16 I started a health and social care diploma at a local college. I struggled to get all the work in and asked my teacher if I could take some of my work home given my situation. She said no.
Mum went back into hospital when I was 17, prompting social services involvement for myself and my sister. I was identified as a young carer and linked to a local youth club for other kids like me. It was the first time in my life I remembered just being a kid, having fun.
After college I got a job as a family support worker at Action for Children. It felt amazing to have responsibility outside the home but I only managed because my employers were so flexible. My dad was getting worse and my mum’s mental health was much the same, a rollercoaster. Work needed me. Family needed me. I often felt torn, always tired.
In the mornings, I tried to sort as much as possible in the house for Mum, Dad and my sister before heading to work. Throughout the day I made several phone calls home to check on everyone and work let me stop home if I was out on visits in the community. When I got home at the end of the day I wanted to crash but I couldn’t as everyone needed me.
My dad was getting worse, and my mum’s mental health was much the same, a rollercoaster. Work needed me. Family needed me. I often felt torn, always tired.
My own mental health was declining and I knew I needed to get my own place. I started renting a houseshare one street over from my parents. That small distance made a huge impact. I could shut the door at night, sleep straight through the night and shower without interruption.
When I turned 22 I decided to stop working. I just couldn’t juggle everything anymore. For the following two years I poured myself into caring for my family, implementing the skills I had acquired at work at home. I got Mum some emotional support, signed her up for volunteering and brought her to the GP. I took my dad to his neurology appointments, sorted their benefits and ensured bills were paid on time.
I never thought I would be able to attend university but when I was 23 the University of Plymouth offered a creative art therapy degree based in Bristol. Three days a week I got to be with people my age, who had the same interests as me. It was a really happy time for me.
When COVID hit, I kept renting my place but temporarily moved back into my parents' house to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. There was no bed for me so I slept on the living room floor, woken early each morning by everyone making their way into the kitchen.
My dad had massively deteriorated and my mum was breaking down. I didn’t know what to do. The only solution I could think of was dropping my dad at hospital and leaving him there to get support. I contacted nearly 100 people, charities and organisations, desperately trying to get help for him, but found nothing. The hospital tried to discharge him but I was adamant that he couldn’t come home without a care package. Four months later he left the hospital, with the promise of carers coming to the house four times a day to give him medication, take him to the toilet and bathe him.
I moved back to my house, relieved to sleep in my own bed.
Over the last three years we’ve fallen into a routine. I went back to work three days a week at Carers Support Centre. On those three days I intentionally don’t go to my parents' house, my way of setting boundaries for myself. Two or three days a week, when I’m not in work, I go to their house to clean, do the food shopping, sort admin and bills and remind my parents to do things like get a haircut.
My biggest fear for the future is that I’ll have to move back in with my parents. With the rising cost of living, I wonder if it may become too expensive to live on my own if I’m only working three days a week in order to also take care of my parents. I’m doing everything I can to keep bills low: layering clothes, turning off lights, piling on blankets. I’m just waiting to see how it all plays out.
I would love to be able to erase so many of the memories of my childhood. My mental and physical health have both taken a beating as a result of the huge responsibilities I had at such a young age. But I don’t blame my parents. They didn’t choose these illnesses for themselves.
It may not have been the ideal childhood but it formed me into the woman I am today.
If you want to support unpaid carers like Carina, either through finances or your time, head over to Carers Trust.