Shining a light on invisible young carers

Issue: Volume 95, Number 12

Posted: 4 July 2016
Reference #: 1H9d2Z

The lives of young Kiwis in the 21st century are busier than ever, from school work and extracurricular activities to part-time jobs and jam-packed social lives. However, some of our busiest and hardest working young people go unnoticed in our schools and communities. Each day thousands of young carers in New Zealand look after ill, elderly, or disabled friends or family members.

Lauren Donnan, the leader of national network Young Carers NZ, says New Zealand has a large population of young carers. She is part of an advisory group supported by not for profit Carers NZ which is building awareness of young carers, and creating a support network for them.

She is also a student at the University of Auckland, currently writing her PhD on the experiences of these young people.

For her thesis Lauren interviewed 40 former or current young carers from throughout the country.

She also drew on her own experience of caring for her autistic and intellectually disabled older brother Beefy during her teenage years.

Lauren was just 15 when her mother passed away. Due to her father’s work as an international flight attendant, he would alternate between working away and being home with the family.

Lauren took on the household chores and day-to-day care for Beefy when her father was away. She says her other brother, who is also older, cared for her by dropping her at school and providing other support.

“I was still going to school as normal,” she says. “People knew my mother had passed away but they just assumed there was somebody at home looking after me.”

Lauren now has the tentative results of her PhD research.

The young carers Lauren spoke to all had different stories, but they all faced challenges in other parts of their lives because of their roles as carers.

“All of the young carers I spoke with said that being a carer impacted on other parts of their lives, including school, their social life and their work life,” Lauren says.

Some of the young carers Lauren spoke with missed a lot of school.

“They didn’t want to be missing school but they felt they had no option,” she says. “Sometimes support services would fall through or they would struggle to get services to help them."

“Others were responsible for people with episodic illnesses, such as manic depression or alcoholism. The people they care for are fine for a long time and then need help very quickly, so the young carer has to drop everything else at the last minute."

“Even if they go to school and they seem fine they might be going home to care for a loved one until the early hours of the morning and then getting up and going to school again.”

Lauren says many young carers struggle to maintain a good social life.

“A lot of people said they struggled to make friends,” she says. “They didn’t have the opportunity to go out to people’s houses and almost all young carers said they never had friends over to their houses.”

Some young carers experience their own mental health issues because of their responsibilities as a carer.

Lauren says there is a positive side to being a carer and often young carers relish the responsibility their role brings.

“These kids often want to be carers and they do have some amazing times,” she says. “However, they don’t get training and don’t have help so it can turn into a negative experience."

“Young carers want to be supported and taken seriously.”

Asked what support young carers need from their teachers and school community, Lauren says they want people to know they exist and what young caring is all about.

“If teachers and schools can just do small things to help it would make a massive difference,” she says. “Give them somewhere to do homework after school or give them an extension on their assignment."

“Teachers need to be informed about young caring so that they have awareness and can identify those students who may have a caring role,” Lauren says.

“Often young carers are written-off as ‘bad kids’ or truants, most of the time they just need somebody to care.”

Young carers can follow the Young Carers NZ Facebook page(external link), where they can learn about available help and connect with other young carers.

All young people are being encouraged to participate in a Young Carers NZ survey(external link), which aims to learn more about young carers, their role, and how they can be helped.

Lauren’s thesis is due to be finished in mid-2017. For more information on her research you can contact her at l.hitchin@auckland.ac.nz

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 4:04 PM, 4 July 2016

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